Islamists seeking to impose aspects of Shari'a law in Britain received a major boost last week from the nation's top judge, Lord Phillips. Speaking at a London mosque, Phillips opined that Muslims should be permitted to have marital and financial disputes decided according to Islamic legal doctrines.

Stephen Hockman QC, a leading barrister and former chairman of the Bar Council, elaborated on the chief justice's reasoning:

Given the world situation and our own substantial Muslim population it is vital that we now look at ways to integrate Muslim culture into our own traditions.

Otherwise we will find that there is a significant section of our society which is increasingly alienated, with very dangerous results.

One could only wonder how Shari'a, which mandates an inferior status for women and has inspired an array of baroque investment mechanisms, would benefit either the UK or its Muslim community in the adjudication of marital and financial cases.

The debate over the role of Shari'a in Britain has taken center stage during the past year, particularly among senior clerics. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams sparked a furor in February when he argued that adopting provisions of Shari'a "seems unavoidable" and would improve social cohesion. In Williams' view, the notion that "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts — I think that's a bit of a danger."

Williams came under heavy fire from Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali, who contended that incorporating Islamic law into British law is "simply impossible … without fundamentally affecting its integrity." Specifically, Shari'a "would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions for divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence," along with "freedom of belief and of expression." Many of Nazir-Ali's arguments have been echoed by Williams' predecessor as archbishop, George Carey.

The British government already promotes Shari'a finance and awards additional welfare benefits to Muslim men with more than one wife. However, Downing Street quickly distanced itself from Phillips, reiterating that "British law should be based on British values and determined by the British Parliament."

That politicians on both sides of the aisle have thus far resisted calls to formally sanction Shari'a law for dispute resolution is cause for optimism; that so many prominent figures keep issuing such demands is cause for pessimism.