The Archbishop of Canterbury caused consternation yesterday by calling for Islamic law to be recognised in Britain.
He declared that Sharia and Parliamentary law should be given equal legal status so the people could choose which governs their lives.
This raised the prospect of Islamic courts in Britain with full legal powers to approve polygamous marriages, grant easy divorce for men and prevent finance firms from charging interest.
His comments in a BBC interview and a lecture to lawyers were condemned at a time when government ministers are striving to encourage integration and stop the nation from “sleepwalking to segregation”.
The Prime Minister rapidly distanced himself from Dr Williams’s view. Gordon Brown’s spokesman said: “Our general position is that sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes.
“The Prime Minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values.”
Dr Williams’s words opened a chasm over Islam between senior leaders of the Church of England, who are already trying to deal with an Anglican war over gay rights which broke out after he was appointed archbishop.
The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, is facing death threats following his warning last month about Muslim “no-go areas” in Britain.
And the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, who has been fiercely critical of Muslim extremists, said last year that “the imposition of sharia law, Britain as a Muslim society – that will never happen”.
In his lecture, 57-year-old Dr Williams said that “we have to think a little harder about the role and rule of law in a plural society of overlapping identities”.
He added that it would be possible to develop “a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents.
“This may include aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions, and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution.”
The archbishop attempted to distance himself from the extreme legal systems run in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, where adultery can be punished by death and women who behave independently risk harsh punishments.
“Nobody in their right mind, I think, would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states – the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well,” he said.
Dr Williams pointed out that Jewish Beth Din courts already operate in Britain. But these, like sharia arrangements currently existing in Muslim areas, are voluntary understandings conducted with the agreement of participants.
Alternative sharia courts as proposed by the archbishop would dish out enforceable law.
Muslim groups responded cautiously to Dr Williams’s proposals. A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said: “We will need to look carefully at the archbishop’s lecture.”
The Ramadhan Foundation youth organisation said the scheme would help build respect and tolerance.
Its director Mohammed Shafiq said: “Sharia law for civil matters is something which has been introduced in some western countries with much success; I believe that Muslims would take huge comfort from the Government allowing civil matters being resolved according to their faith.”
But he added: “We are however disappointed that the Archbishop of Canterbury was silent when Bishop Nazir-Ali was promoting intolerance and lying about no-go areas for Christians in the UK by Muslim extremists.
“Unless he speaks out against this intolerance, Muslims will take his silence as authorisation and support for such comments.”
Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said Dr Williams’s comments gave “succour to extremists”.
“He needs to understand that his words carry enormous weight,” he said in a Channel 4 interview.
“What he seems to be talking about is a situation in which people are treated differently under the law according to their religion. People cannot be treated differently. Everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law.
“I don’t doubt the archbishop’s desire to accommodate diversity, but we cannot do so at the expense of our common values.”
He described Dr Williams as “muddled” and “dangerous”.
Mr Phillips was the first prominent Labour figure to condemn multiculturalism, the Left-wing doctrine which promotes different cultures.
He declared that under its influence Britain was sleepwalking to segregation.
Yesterday he said the “implication that British courts should treat people differently based on their faith is divisive and dangerous.
“It risks removing the protection afforded by law, for example, to children in custody cases or women in divorce proceedings.
“The first people who would suffer would be ethnic-minority citizens. Follow the logic of this extreme multiculturalism through and where do we end up?
With a group of white Christians in Barking and Dagenham deciding they had a conscientious objection to nonwhite Muslims in their neighbourhoods – and seeking the support of the courts?”
Mike Judge, of the Christian Institute, said: “I am appalled that the head of the Church of England is advocating that parts of sharia law should be introduced into British law.
“The idea that you can have the moderate bits without the nasty bits coming along at a later time is naive.”
Tory backbencher David Davies, an Anglican, said: “I am astounded. Dr Williams is a nice enough man, very intellectual, but he has clearly lost the plot.
“He’s one of the most influential Christian prelates in the world and he’s supposed to be standing up for Christianity.
“What he’s doing is abandoning his own religion. If people come to this country they should be prepared to compromise their own traditions to fit in with the host country.
Tory cohesion spokesman Baroness Warsi, a Muslim herself, said: “The archbishop’s comments are unhelpful and may add to the confusion that already exists in our communities.
“Freedom under the law allows respect for some religious practices.
“But let’s be absolutely clear. All British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts.”