It is often thought the main threat of radical Islamism to the West and, indeed, the world, is terrorism. It is also said to be the isolation of Muslim communities, which allows extremists to recruit people to their cause.Such views are not mistaken but they confuse effects with causes. What the world has to recognise is that we are not simply dealing with faith, but with a political, social and economic ideology. Radical Islamism is a worldview. Its nearest parallel, despite many differences, is Marxism.
Radical Islamists claim their all-encompassing program for society is rooted in fundamental Islamic sources. They reject the interpretations of Koran and sharia law offered by reformist or moderate Muslims. We must, of course, respect the faith of ordinary Muslims, but the ideology has to be met in a different way.
It is basic to Western societies that there should be one law for all. This idea emerged from the Judaeo-Christian tradition that all humans are made in God's image. It has been mediated by the Enlightenment, which emphasised not only dignity but also liberty.
The radical Islamist vision is absolutist. It applies to every area of human life, including politics, business and, above all, law itself. Recent demands by British and some Australian Muslim leaders for the recognition of aspects of sharia law should be seen in this light. Western clergy and jurists who advocate such demands fail to recognise that acknowledging aspects of sharia in public law will lead to a greater involvement with Islamic law.
A few years ago some Canadian Muslim women campaigned against the proposal to introduce Islamic law to settle family issues in Ontario. Their instincts were right. Islamic law is not just an intellectual legal tradition; it exists in highly prescriptive codes of law called fiqh. These codes differ from one another but would all be incompatible with the assumption of equality in Western law.
Muslim scholars recognise the three great inequalities of their legal tradition: between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, slave and free. In the case of family law, for example, there is inequality between men and women in marriage, and in provisions for divorce, custody of children, laws of admissible evidence and inheritance.
In Britain two years ago, when the then lord chief justice was arguing for recognition of some aspects of Islamic family law, the British Law Lords were ruling that a woman should not be deported to her own country because under sharia law there she would be deprived of the custody of her child. The Law Lords saw this as a violation of her basic rights.
While many predominantly Muslim countries have signed international covenants on fundamental rights, some have entered codicils declaring their adherence to these covenants must be in conformity with sharia law. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, representing the world's Muslim countries, has issued the Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. This differs from the international declarations in a number of respects, not least in the absence of a provision corresponding to Article 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, providing for freedom of expression, belief and change of belief.
In a number of Muslim countries apostasy from Islam is punishable. In some, the punishment is death. In Pakistan, the so-called blasphemy law prescribes a death sentence for insulting the prophet of Islam. Muslim commentators admit that internationally recognised commitments to personal freedoms are difficult to reconcile with sharia law.
Although punishments for apostasy and blasphemy cannot be implemented in non-Muslim countries, they do contribute to attitudes that have consequences in these contexts as well. Such attitudes have resulted in harassment and persecution of those who have given up their belief or changed their faith, even in the West. They have led to demands for laws against defamation of religion, which would effectively restrict freedom of expression.
While we should all be committed to civility in public discussion, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights already provides protection from incitement to religious hatred, which leads to discrimination, hostility or violence. To go beyond this has implications for free speech.
Muslims, like anyone else, should be free to practise and propagate their faith. They are free also to contribute to public debate. The principle of one law for all, however, cannot be compromised. Freedom of expression and the right to change one's belief must be maintained. So must easy access to the courts and police.
Michael Nazir-Ali was bishop of Rochester in Britain, a member of the House of Lords and bishop of Raiwind in Pakistan.