Thursday, 7 February 2008

Christian leader calls for separate courts for Muslims

The Archbishop of Canterbury thinks the adoption of Sharia law in the UK is 'unavoidable':

Dr Williams told BBC Radio 4's World at One that the UK has to 'face up to the fact' that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system. Dr Williams argues that adopting some aspects of Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court. He says Muslims should not have to choose between 'the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty'.

He went on (in words that even Private Eye would find hard to parody): 'An approach to law which simply said - there's one law for everybody - I think that's a bit of a danger.'

This is so ludicrous that it invites caricature rather than serious critique. In another life I worked in rehabilitation projects for ex-offenders. Quite a few of them didn't 'relate' to the British legal system either: perhaps we should have 'faced up to the fact' and let them adopt a different legal code instead? As for 'maintaining social cohesion' : this seems to mean 'let's not do anything that might upset the fundamentalists'. Maybe we should repeal our gay equality laws: that would certainly help to maintain social cohesion among conservative Christians.

More seriously, Williams' 'stark' opposition of cultural loyalty and state loyalty suggests, insidiously, that the legal systems of free societies express local prejudices rather than universal principles. In which case, one community's legal code is as good as any other's. This is cultural relativism, and multicultural communalism, run amok. In a free, democratic society, citizens should be loyal to the laws of the land. If cultural mores conflict with those laws, then individuals and groups have the option of campaigning to change the law, but only by majority agreement. Or maybe they should face up to the possibility that the culture itself needs to change - incidentally, Williams seems to subscribe to a very old-fashioned view of culture as a fixed package, immune to the influences of a plural and changing society.

Then again, to treat individuals solely on the basis of their presumed religious identity is reductive - and patronising - in the extreme. Is the identity of 'Muslim' - whether adopted voluntarily or attributed by others - to be privileged above other identities - including that of British citizen? And what about those who are identified as Muslims but wish to have nothing to do with a legal code which, for all its trumpeted benefits, is undoubtedly patriarchal and illiberal?

As I argued here, many of Williams' recent statements reflect the same kind of envy/fascination with Islam to be found in the writings of other erstwhile liberal christians such as Madeleine Bunting, Karen Armstrong and William Dalrymple, in which a bend-over-backwards spirit of 'understanding' towards other religionists (however illiberal) overrides any lingering commitment to universal liberal principles. The Archbishop's statement today - like his argument last week  for a new, improved law of blasphemy - is yet more evidence of his dangerous political naivety and further ammunition for those who wish to see religion's privileged role in the public square reduced.

Update: Friday

The reaction to Dr Williams' comments has been overwhelmingly - and reassuringly - negative. Tabloid hostility was inevitable, but the Guardian and Independent offer more thoughtful dismissals of the archbishop's flawed argument. Interesting to see Paul Vallely in the latter echoing something I said here about Williams failing to realise that, as archbishop, he can't get away with saying the kind of things he would have written as an academic theologian - I think that's part of his problem, but by no means the whole of it.

Reassuring, too, that Williams' crazy communalism has been roundly condemned by all the main political parties, though I wish government spokespeople had focused more on the plain wrongheadedness and illiberalism of his proposal, rather than its impracticality, and that the PM's spokesman, instead of saying that Brown 'believes that British laws should be based on British values' - which to my mind opens up the whole laws-are-culturally-relative can of worms - had emphasised the grounding of our legal system in universal notions of human rights.

There's some good stuff on the blogs too. This from David T at Harry's Place:

Isn't there something particularly pathetic about a Bishop in a church which - in theory - exists to evangelise, shilling on behalf of the theocratic politics of another religion, which wishes to write their version of 'god's will' into law?

And this from Bob:

What are we to say if a given population, for example, claims that marital rape or female genital mutilation or polygamy is the morality of their 'culture', and that given the 'stark alternatives of cultural loyalty of state loyalty' they choose cultural loyalty? Surely we should contest that right rather than say it is 'inevitable' that there need to be plural legal frameworks.

I liked this from Shuggy:

You don't have to a 'relate' to a legal system; it isn't like your goddam mother-in-law where you have to try and get along - just following rules will do.

And like me, Mick finds Williams' statement so ludicrous as virtually to invite ridicule. He appends this fictional ending to the archbishop's interview:

'As it happens I am not in my right mind: that's why I come out with this rubbish. Ha ha! Sorry about that. Do you like my new cassock? It's embroidered silk, you know. I had it made especially. No one else can wear one of these. Certainly not the Archbishop of York. When I chant very loudly, God makes it light up to show how much He loves me. Shall I show you?'

At this point the interview was terminated, and the Archbishop was led away, singing 'Jesus wants me for a sunbeam'.

Further update: Friday afternoon

The Anglican bishop of Hulme, the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, has been all over the media sticking up for his boss - a pretty lonely task today. He criticised the 'disgraceful' way in which the archbishop has been 'ridiculed' and 'lampooned' by some. I'm sorry, Mr Lowe, but when you say 'An approach to law which simply said - there's one law for everybody - I think that's a bit of a danger' you kind of lampoon yourself. 

As for Lowe's defence that 'We have probably one of the greatest and brightest archbishops of Canterbury we have had for many a long day'. Well, intellectual brilliance and staggering political naivety sometimes go together. And reputations for greatness and brightness can be lost as well as won.

In the interview I heard, Lowe described Rowan Williams as 'the spiritual leader of the nation' - and thus permitted to pronounce on matters concerning other faiths beside his own. I'm sorry, but he's not my spiritual leader - nor, for that matter, is he the spiritual leader of the nation's Catholics, Methodists, Jews, Buddhists or atheists. His comments on sharia law, together with his recent arguments in favour of a new blasphemy law, provide powerful evidence for disestablishing the minority Anglican church and doing away with its asburdly privileged position in public discourse.

Elsewhere: it warms the heart that some of the most articulate critiques of the archbishop's statement have come from fellow believers. The progressive Christian website Ekklesia is 'concerned that the Church of England, recognising the untenability of privileges it still claims as an Established Church, is now seeking to create a broader "multi-faith establishment" where "the same problems will be replicated across a wider and more complex arena."'

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