The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for the U.K. to adopt Sharia law for Muslims.

Rowan Williams suggested today that it “seems unavoidable” that elements of Islamic law be accepted into the British legal system.

The head of the Church of England believes that officially sanctioning Sharia will improve community relations and aid integration. He conceded that his view would be controversial but said similar concessions to other religions were already allowed in the U.K.

“Nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that has sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states: the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women,” he told the BBC World at One program.

“But there are ways of looking at marital disputes, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them.”

Williams pointed out that some Orthodox Jewish courts already operated in the U.K., and that anti-abortion views of Catholics and other Christians were “accommodated within the law.”

Sharia is a code of Islamic law implemented in Muslim countries across the world including Libya and Sudan, but most modern Islamic nations operate a dual legal system with elements of secular law alongside Sharia.

The Archbishop believes that Sharia should be introduced as an officially sanctioned legal alternative in the U.K. when it came to issues such as marriage and divorce.

“It seems unavoidable and, as a matter of fact, certain conditions of Sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law, so it is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system,” he said.

“The whole idea that there are perfectly proper ways the law of the land pays respect to custom and community, that’s already there.”

The Anglican leader cited the dispute over allowing Catholic adoption agencies to discriminate against gay couples as an example of a universal and unchallenged rule of secular law not being accepted by everybody.

“That principle that there is only one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a western democracy,” he said.

“But I think it is a misunderstanding to suppose that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that.”

The Archbishop emphasised that it was important to change British perceptions of Sharia. There is no single codified set of universal Sharia laws and governments from one country to the next employ very different strands.

He said people needed to look at Islamic law “with a clear eye and not imagine, either, that we know exactly what we mean by Sharia and just associate it with ... Saudi Arabia, or whatever.”

Mohammed Shafiq, director of the Ramadhan Foundation an Islamic charity, welcomed the Archbishop’s suggestion.

“These comments further underline the attempts by both our great faiths to build respect and tolerance,” he 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.”