Remember this next time someone tells you Christian values are the best defense against the spread of Islamism: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the head of the Anglican church, believes that the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK “seems unavoidable”. (Full transcript of his BBC interview on Sharia law here.)
Williams isn’t of course referring to the Islamist-imperialist dream of the entire U.K being placed under Sharia law, but rather he’s backing the idea, promoted by some in the UK Muslim community, of allowing Muslims to settle some aspects of family and “personal status” laws in Sharia courts.
Williams says Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty” (he doesn’t say why not) and rejects an approach to law where “there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts — I think that’s a bit of a danger.” He doesn’t say what is “dangerous” about the idea of the law applying equally to all.
Before we take a look at the fascinating Anglican-Islamic marriage of convenience, perhaps let us take a quick reality check. Sharia in the UK isn’t going to happen and the response has been encouragingly negative.
No, Sharia won’t be implemented in any formal way in the UK. Parliament will not allow it; British politicians aren’t going to give their approval to Islamic courts. No, the real problem here is that Rowan Williams has given hope to that minority of Muslims who do dream of having their own divorce laws and so on. By promising something which is unobtainable, he teases radical Islamists into believing they are being cheated of something they might reasonably expect to be given and gives them another “grievance” to complain about.
He also is giving more strength to religious conservatives within the Muslim community at a time when the aim of all reasonable people should be to weaken those reactionaries and strengthen their secular, democratic opponents. Religious conservatives in the Muslim community in the U.K will be able to respond to criticisms of Sharia from, say, womens’ organizations by pointing to Williams and noting how even the liberalized, secularized Anglican church sees Sharia as something reasonable. They will be able to use his comments to give credibility to their efforts to consolidate backward practices from Pakistan or Bangladesh within their communities.
On one level, the infamously woolly Archbishop’s ludicrous intervention is part of the final death throes of a failed liberal multiculturalism which has stressed difference over commonality and exceptionalism over universalism. On another, it is a continuation of the British state’s accommodation with religious privilege, a policy that gives the Archbishop, as head of the established church, his “import” and political significance along with his Bishops with their automatic places in the unelected second chamber – the House of Lords. It is such an accommodation that lays behind the Blasphemy Laws in the U.K, which, while rarely used, are just the kind of legislation that those offended by cartoons would dearly love to see protect their sensitivities.
The broader significance of the Archbishop’s words is hinted at when he talks about other religions:
We have orthodox Jewish courts operating in this country; not to mention the issues as I mentioned earlier — not to mention the questions about how the consciences of Catholics, Anglicans and others who have difficulty about issues like abortion are accommodated within the law; so the whole idea that there are perfectly proper ways in which the law of the land pays respect to custom and community; that’s already there.
I have no idea what Williams is referring to when he talks about abortion. The abortion law in the U.K is the law, and while there are plenty of people who would like to change it, there aren’t many who would suggest that they be exempt from that law due to their religious beliefs. The opponents of the UK’s liberal abortion law attempt to change it through the democratic process and changing the law rather than creating exemptions. But it is hard to argue against such an ill-thought out and barely expressed view.
The vagueness of Williams’ argument fuels my suspicion that he quite likes the idea of Muslims and Jews having their own courts so that Christians can create their own exemptions. Far from being a bulwark against Islamism, the leader of the Church of England appears to see potential in the spread of Sharia.
If there is to be a change in the U.K in response to talk of Sharia courts and limitations of free speech such as “religious hatred” laws then it should be to remove the basis for claims of “double-standards.” We should see a move towards the full separation of church and state in the UK, the disestablishment of the Church of England and the removal of the Bishops (including the foolish Archbishop) from the political process.
A strong and even-handed secular state is the best defense against the re-emergence of clerical politics.
“Jimmy Bradshaw” is the pseudonym of a popular Social Democrat.