Archbishop gets sound-bitten

From the SMH again, UK Archbishop facing calls to resign:

Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, faced calls to resign for suggesting the introduction in Britain of some aspects of Islamic law was unavoidable.

The Archbishop of Canterbury tried to quell the storm by denying he had called for Islamic law, known as sharia, to be introduced alongside British law.

In a BBC interview on Thursday, he referred to the use of sharia in some personal or domestic issues, much like orthodox Jews already have their own courts for some matters. Asked if sharia needed to be applied in some cases for community cohesion, Williams said: “It seems unavoidable.”


Archbish Williams has made an appearance on this blog before, when he cast doubt on the factual accuracy of the Christmas story. And, once again, I have mixed feelings.

First things first. I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel recently, and the negative effect of the practice of Islamic law in refugee communities in the Netherlands is fresh in my mind. Plus, I think that religions in general have a pretty bad track record of defining laws that promote rights and equality, so I don’t see why any religion should have claim to any privileged position to influence law.

However, while I disagree with Williams, there’s a big fat gulf between what he’s saying and people calling for him to resign. Here are a couple of excerpts from the full transcript of the interview (I recommend reading the whole thing):

What a lot of Muslim scholars would say, I think, and I’m no expert on this, is that Sharia is a method rather than a code of law and that where it’s codified in some of the ways that you’ve mentioned in very brutal and inhuman and unjust ways, that’s one particular expression of it which is historically conditioned, not at all what people would want to see as part of the method of trying to make actual the will of God in certain circumstances. So there’s a lot of internal debate within the Islamic community generally about the nature of Sharia and its extent; nobody in their right mind I think would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.

It’s very important [t]hat you mention there the word ‘choice’; I think it would be quite wrong to say that we could ever licence so to speak a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general…

…as I said earlier, it’s not something that’s absolutely peculiar to Islam. We have orthodox Jewish courts operating in this country legally and in a regulated way because there are modes of dispute resolution and customary provisions which apply there in the light of Talmud. It’s not a new problem, not to mention the issues as I mentioned earlier the questions about how the consciences of Catholics Anglicans and others who have difficulty over 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.

…now that principle that there’s one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that, so an approach to law which simply said, ‘There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts’. I think that’s a bit of a danger.

It seems pretty clear that he’s not proposing that the UK set up Islamic ghettos where western law doesn’t apply, which is how it seems to come across in the sound-bite news reports. It’s more like he’s saying that there could be a way, in communities that already internally follow a set of de facto religious laws, to allow that to influence civil law, without overriding anyone’s basic legal rights. Apparently this is already the case with Jewish communities. And he falls short of saying that this should happen; he mostly just says that it should be up for discussion.

I hardly see how people can be calling for his head on a plate over this.

The thing that stands out to me is that the head of the Anglican Church is taking a very big step back and talking about acceptance of standards outside his own religion. It’s almost as if he’s suggesting – shock, horror – that someone else might have a different point of view. He’s very non-partisan about the whole thing – he only talks about the Christian position in passing, by way of comparison; and he ducks the interviewer’s final question:

In the end, do you think that some people might be surprised to hear that a Christian Archbishop is calling for greater consideration of the role of Islamic law?

People may be surprised but I hope that that surprise will be modified when they think about the general question of how the law and religious community, religious principle are best and fruitfully accommodated…

Well, I am surprised. Pleasantly.

Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe people want the head of their church to push for the church’s beliefs and only the church’s beliefs. Maybe people are uncomfortable with the idea that their church’s leader is willing to consider that other people believe differently, and have just as much right to do so.

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