When our most senior judge, the Lord Chief Justice, said about a week ago that British Muslims should be able to use Sharia law to settle legal disputes, he provoked a storm of controversy. "We've got a perfectly good legal system (or more accurately, set of legal systems) in Britain," people said, "and if Muslims don't like it, there are plenty of countries governed under Sharia law that they can go to instead." Many scared Britons seemed to think that a Sharia Act was on its way through Parliament, burkhas would become compulsory, and stoning introduced for capital crimes.
So much for the knee-jerk, gutter press reaction. The truth is a lot more mundane, and a lot less controversial.
What Lord Phillips is talking about is the use of Sharia to settle civil disputes. If two Muslims get into a civil case - an argument about money, perhaps - they have, like anyone else, three choices. They can settle it using the civil courts, costing themselves and the taxpayer vast sums of money. They can come to some sort of personal agreement outside of court, and let matters rest. Or they can go to a mediator, someone they can both agree on, who will look at the dispute and come up with a compromise settlement which both sides are then required to accept.
That third-party mediator could be anyone. Usually, it's a dedicated organisation or profesional problem-solver. But it could be anyone that both sides are happy with. And if both parties are practising Muslims, and if they both agree, then why shouldn't they ask a Muslim religious expert to resolve their case using Sharia principles? It's perfectly legal as things stand. So when you think it through properly, the Lord Chief Justice's comments aren't particularly radical - they're just calling for formal recognition of something which people are quite entitled to do already.
So why, if all of this is so mundane, has it sparked such a poisonous and heated controversy? The main problem in debating this issue is that we're talking entirely at cross-purposes when it comes to the word "law". To most people, a law means a legal rule, which everyone has to follow. As soon as you float the idea of Sharia law in the UK, people get the impression you're proposing actual legislation, which would affect all of us, whether we follow Islam or not. Or even worse - legislation which would only affect practising Muslims, creating a parallel legal system.
But a religious "law" is something quite different to a normal law. It's a personal, voluntary commitment made by an individual. For example, it's against the Jewish law (known as Halacha) to eat pork, and thousands of British Jews, including myself, follow that law. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that we're living in a parallel legal system by avoiding certain kinds of food. It's not really a law; it's more of a personal lifestyle choice.
One of the beauties of English Law is that, unless you're doing something that's actually illegal, you can do what the heck you like. That means that British Muslims are free to make the personal decision to follow whatever religious "laws" they wish, as long as it doesn't bring them into conflict with the actual law of the land. I don't believe Lord Phillips has said anything more radical than that. Unfortunately, the argument he has sparked off has degenerated into a comedy of misunderstandings, rather than a meaningful debate.