Friday, February 8, 2008

Law and Religion

I have been assisting a professor of mine with a book on the relation between moral philosophy (specifically Western moral philosophy) and constitutional government. So the recent furor over Rev. Rowan Williams' (Archbishop of Canterbury) speech on the recognition of Sharia law in England (and Europe) caught my eye.

His thesis seems to be this: The Western secularized system of law that developed after the Enlightenment, while striving to be a universal moral code, is more strongly rooted in European Christian morality than we would like to recognize. This becomes most obvious in the tension between Western law and religious legal systems such as Sharia (and Orthodox Jewish law). If Britain really espouses multi-culturalism, there should be some sort of official recognition of Sharia courts (and Bet Dins) in Europe. He suggests a supplemental jurisdiction where the courts, in matters that comport with the fundamentals of British society, recognize the judgments of a religious court if a citizen so chooses.

I have to say, there is an idea in this. As much as we secular progressives hate to admit, many people choose to, and even gain strength from, living within a strict religious code. If America recognized (or was Constitutionally able to recognize) Sharia courts in any quasi-official way, we would be putting our money where our mouth is. We would be saying that we accept Islam and Islamic society and want to live in peace with it.

This, of course, sounds like an amazingly awful idea given our popular understanding of Sharia law. But as Rev. Williams points out in his speech, Sharia does not necessarily mean repression of women (not to mention an increase in solely right-handed people). There are many aspects of Sharia law that govern social relations from a religious point-of-view. Would it be so bad that, if two litigants agreed, their contract dispute be governed by Islamic jurisprudence and not Anglo-American common law?

Plus there is a such thing as moderate Sharia law. A nationally recognized court would, I believe, almost certainly become moderate, drawing from the great middle of society. And as Rev. William suggested, we need not recognize facets of law that do not comport with our own basic notions of human rights.

This is all in theory though. At least on this side of the pond. I cannot imagine a situation in which separation of church and state would allow any sort of official recognition of a religious court. But if it happened in England, which the recent furor tells me it never will, I would be interested in seeing if it mends the rift between the religious east and the secular west.


Update from the BBC


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