The incoherent debate over sharia, or Islamic law, continues in Britain. The main culprit: multicultural confusion among non-Muslim leaders. In February, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argued that the introduction of sharia as a separate legal system for British Muslims is "unavoidable" (see this article). Williams's comments produced widespread alarm and condemnation, so Britain's Lord Chief Justice, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers then stepped in. (He's the rough equivalent of our Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but with more latitude for public tomfoolery.)

Phillips declared early this month that family and business disputes can be submitted to sharia mediation in Britain. He was careful to specify that "hudud" punishments for moral and criminal charges, such as flogging, stoning of adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, and capital sentences should not be imposed under sharia in Britain. But even his language regarding marital and commercial matters was off the mark.

At first glance, letting religious courts handle family and business disputes through voluntary mediation might seem harmless, and radical Muslim advocates of using sharia in Western countries often cite the precedent under which a Jewish religious court, or beth din, will settle such disputes between commmunity members who agree to have them so settled. But this assumes a lack of coercion and free recourse to the civil justice system as an alternative, conditions that don't prevail when dealing with some powerful and well-funded radical Islamic clerics.

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