When Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams speculated that demographic changes in Britain make the greater acceptance of Islamic law "unavoidable," he had no idea how soon he would be proven correct. The Times has revealed that Shari'a courts have been active for the past year and their rulings can be enforced by the nation's judicial system.

Such courts are enabled by the Arbitration Act of 1996, which allows alternative panels to issue binding judgments on civil disputes, as long as the parties agree in advance to accept the verdict. While Jewish tribunals have long operated under the same provision, a number of commentators have pointed out potential problems with extending recognition to Shari'a-based ones.

Phyllis Chesler questions whether women from strict Islamic families are exercising free will when they agree to empower tribunals that are stacked against them:

I bet the British Muslim women who "choose" to inherit radically less than their brothers and who "choose" not to press criminal charges against their husband-batterers are not making a free choice. In order to remain within their faith and family communities they must submit to Shari'a law or risk ostracism, isolation, or the possibility of being honor murdered.

She alludes to a pair of early revelations. First, in an inheritance case, daughters were awarded shares half as large as those received by the sons, in accordance with a Koranic injunction. A regular British court would have distributed equal shares. Second, though alternative dispute resolution is restricted to civil matters, Shari'a panels already have ruled on six domestic violence cases, which are criminal rather than civil. In all six, the judges ordered only that the husbands take part in anger management classes and "mentoring" from elders; the women, in return, agreed not to pursue their complaints further.

John O'Sullivan worries that police have "stopped questioning women who've accused their husbands of domestic violence once the tribunal has 'settled' the case" — a practice he calls unusual, overly deferential, and possibly illegal. He sees a broader pattern at work here:

The police sometimes break their own rules in such cases out of a desire to avoid appearing "Islamophobic" and to deal with Muslim communities through unelected "community leaders." Yet these leaders are often extreme figures. Thus, by degrees, Shari'a becomes effective law, even though it's actually illegal.

Melanie Phillips succinctly prognosticates where these double standards will lead: "If this continues Britain will break up as a unitary state governed by one law for all. … This is the way a society fractures — and then goes under."

As a rather famous Englishman once put it, "To be, or not to be — that is the question."