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Religious Accommodation in the Secular State: The Sharia Debates in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom

Studies in Law, Politics, and Society

ISBN: 978-1-78973-728-8, eISBN: 978-1-78973-727-1

Publication date: 10 June 2019


Western liberal states are considered to be secular in nature, with a presumed neutrality of state laws from religious values and norms. However, this claim overlooks the inherent influence that religious groups (namely, dominant Christian churches and groups) have as informal institutions. According to neo-institutionalists, informal institutions, like these religious norms and values, interact with and influence formal state institutions. As such, it could be argued that the norms and values of dominant religious groups within the state have a role in shaping governmental policies and the law. This is evident when examining the debates around multiculturalism and religious freedom that arise in liberal democratic states such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom (UK). In particular, the recent Sharia debates that have arisen in each of these jurisdictions illustrate that the secular state legal system is often positioned as “neutral” and free from religious influence – and thus incompatible with, and unable to, accommodate the religious orders of minority groups. However, this idea that the state is entirely free from religious values is a fallacy that ignores the historical role and influence of Christian churches in each state. In opposing the accommodation of Sharia in private dispute resolution, common arguments include the inherent patriarchal nature of the religion leading to further oppression and disadvantage of Muslim women when seeking resolution of personal law matters (i.e. divorce and property settlements). The secular state law is positioned against this (and religion more broadly) as the “fair” and “just” alternative for minority women – protector of individual rights. Though this ignores the inherent gender hierarchies embedded within formal state institutions, including the legal system that has been implicitly shaped by religious moral values to varying degrees – where minority women are also faced with a set of gender biases. When combined with the internal pressures from their communities and families this can often place them in a double-bind of disadvantage. In this paper, I draw on feminist institutionalism to examine the informal institutional norms that arise from dominant Christian churches in Australia, Canada, and the UK. In particular, the ways in which these informal norms have influenced the development of state laws, and continue to operate alongside the legal system to shape and influence governmental policies, laws, and ultimately the outcomes for Muslim women.



Aftab, A. (2019), "Religious Accommodation in the Secular State: The Sharia Debates in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom", Studies in Law, Politics, and Society (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 79), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 85-108.



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