Who would have thought that a six letter word in English, five in Arabic, would cause such international uproar with suggestions of treason and calls for resignation?

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s suggestion that the introduction in Britain of some aspects of Islamic law was unavoidable has been labelled by his predecessor as “disastrous”, a “Muslim” columnist labelled it an “abomination”, another writer questions his “sanity”, a group of Muslims is “puzzled” and a plethora of experts is ready on tap to highlight cruelties and inhumanities that they normally associate with this word.

It seems that the very fabric of Western society is threatened by the word “Sharia”. Don’t get me wrong, by writing this article I’m not advocating for the introduction of Sharia law in Australia.

I merely seek to highlight the hypocritical, irrational, emotive hysteria that one doesn’t usually associate with liberal democracies.

A number of countries have accommodated the religious law of different minority religions in their midst. Some, like Lebanon, accommodate no less than four differing systems (Muslim Sunni, Shiite Muslim, Druze and the Christian denominations) when it comes to issues of divorce, property settlements and inheritance law. Ironically, as the Brits scream that they want one law for all, they seem unaware that religious courts continue to operate in their very midst.

These courts have been deemed necessary because marriage is, by its very nature, a union under God. These courts adjudicate divorces on the basis of the rules prescribed by the religion they represent. The faith community in question is responsible for its own rules on these civil matters.

Had Archbishop Rowan Williams highlighted the plight of some of those women who need to duplicate their Western divorce proceedings in courts in third countries where their marriage was also registered and called on the government to resolve this matter at political and diplomatic levels, we may have finally resolved a longstanding problem that faces women in the West who may hail from North Africa, the Middle East or some Asian nations.

Several Imams in Australia will cite longstanding cases of women whose Australian Family Court divorce was not recognised as a final decree nisi in their country of origin. They will tell you that some of these cases take two years or longer in other countries before a divorce is granted.

Because divorce by its very nature leaves a bitter taste, those who engage in it in one country are sometimes reluctant to go through the expense and process in another country. This generally, but not always, gives more power to the husband and creates a disadvantage for the wife, especially in patriarchal societies. Imagine the problem that would arise where an estranged recalcitrant husband refuses to cooperate with his ex-wife to have the marriage annulled in their country of origin despite the fact that the marriage had been annulled in Australia?

To give you an idea, think of what would have happened under English law 100 years ago when a husband wanted to hold on to a wife who no longer wanted him?

In my view, Archbishop Williams is a progressive who is somewhat ahead of his time. He is a voice of moderation and reconciliation in a post September 11 world that seems to understand a clash better than cooperation.

Had the good Archbishop highlighted the problem without using, in hindsight, the highly emotive word “Sharia”, one that seems to delight the political elites for the opportunities it provides to show how irrationally tough they are willing to be, we may have been closer to a solution to the plight of those unfortunate women who are caught up in this complex web.

Neither the Archbishop nor the Muslim community are suggesting by any stretch of the imagination for Sharia to be adopted in the West. It cannot be, no matter how devout, fundamentalist or extremist the Muslim may be. There is a longstanding recognition that those parts of Sharia that invoke a strong emotive response in the West, such as the penal provisions, are not demanded by the public but like any penal provisions in any system they are imposed by the state.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey