The British government has cleared the way for husbands with multiple wives to claim welfare benefits for all their partners, fueling growing controversy over the role of Islamic Shariah law in the nation’s cultural and legal framework.
Bigamy is outlawed in Britain, but authorities have never prosecuted Muslim men who had legally married more than one woman abroad and continued to live with them after immigrating. Shariah permits men to have up to four wives at one time.
Now, after a review that began in November 2006, a panel of four government departments has decided that all the wives of a Muslim man may collect state benefits, provided that the marriages took place in a country where multiple spouses are legal.
Neither the review nor the decision was announced publicly, and their discovery by newspapers late last month triggered an uproar in the largely Christian nation — a fury exacerbated by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ remark last week that some aspects of Islamic law could be embraced within Britain’s legal system.
Archbishop Williams, the spiritual head of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, refused to back down from the idea yesterday, but admitted at a meeting of the church’s General Synod, or parliament, that the remark had been “clumsy.”
The furor contributed to a sense of unease about Islam after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States and the suicide bombings by Muslims on London’s bus and rail system that killed 52 commuters three years ago.
The proposed use of taxpayer money to support multiple wives of Muslim men — a figure that one estimate puts at up to $20 million a year — has provoked widespread anger, particularly since bigamy is a crime in Britain, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
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Could this become a precedent for law here in the US?