13 April 2008

What did the Archbishop of Canterbury say about sharia law?

Archbishop Rowan Williams by the Sea of Galilee

Patrick Comerford

A few weeks ago, I was asked to join a panel discussion on Newstalk that turned into a very heated debate about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks on civil and religious law. I have the strong impression that many who rushed to criticise and attack him had neither read the full text of the lecture by Dr Rowan Williams at the Royal Courts of Justice on “Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective,” nor listened to his interview on the BBC’s World at One programme, although both are readily available and accessible on online.

Despite popular misrepresentation in the mass media, Dr Williams made no proposals in his lecture or during his interview for the implementation of sharia in Britain, nor did he call for the introduction of sharia as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law. Dr Williams merely raised the question of how a secular and unitary legal system can and should accommodate religious claims in a religiously plural society.

In his interview, Archbishop Williams observed that “as a matter of fact certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in [British] society and under [British] law.” When the question was put to him that “the application of sharia in certain circumstances – if we want to achieve this cohesion and take seriously peoples’ religion – seems unavoidable?” – he indicated his assent.

Perhaps the archbishop was ill-advised to go on The World at One before his lecture and to say things about sharia that only make sense within the context of the larger, careful argument he made that evening. But he began his lecture by pointing out that the very term sharia is often misunderstood, and the focus of much fear and anxiety about sharia arises because of the way it is applied in some places. He argued that sharia is a method of law rather than a single complete system ready to be applied wholesale to every situation.

Accommodating religious claims

During his lecture, Archbishop Williams explored the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in an increasingly plural society and asked how such a unitary system might be able to accommodate religious claims. Behind this is the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences. An example of this is provided by situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions.

Dr Williams was not suggesting the introduction of parallel legal jurisdictions. Instead, he explored ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience.

He explained to his audience of over 1,000 people that he wanted “to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state,” and he was using sharia as an example. He argued that when the law does not take religious motivation seriously, it fails to engage with a faith community and opens up real issues of power by the majority over the minority. He asked how the distinction between cultural practices and practices arising from genuine religious belief might be managed. And he asked serious questions about how a supplementary jurisdiction could reinforce “in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women.”

At the end of his lecture, chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, Archbishop Williams referred to a suggestion by a Jewish jurist that there might be room for “overlapping jurisdictions” in which “individuals might choose in certain limited areas whether to seek justice under one system or another.” This happens within Jewish arrangements and increasingly in dispute resolution and mediation.

Dr Williams concluded: “If we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of ‘deconstruction’ of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment.”

Far-reaching questions

In his lecture, the archbishop addressed the relation between the law of the land and the religious conscience of the citizen, and he addressed some of the most far-reaching questions facing British society and western culture. He did this with sensitivity and intellectual rigour. But the responses were disturbing and were marked by the “crude oppositions and mythologies” he warned against – often expressed by people who neither read his lecture nor listened to his interview.

The Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, said “the astonishing misrepresentation of Archbishop Rowan in virtually all newspapers … and the scorn and anger which this has fuelled, have caused many people within the church to ask what on earth is going on.”

The idea that society can only respect diversity and promote tolerance by relegating expressions of religious faith to the private lives of individual believers is unacceptable not only to Muslims but to Christians too. Most world faiths, including Christianity, affirm that all of life is included within religious obedience. As Christians we might put by saying “if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.”

When governments accept the suggestion that public expressions of the multifaith nature of society threatens social stability, we end up with an airline worker being sacked in Britain for wearing a cross, and Muslim women in France being banned from wearing their traditional head-covering in public offices and schools. But “multiculturalism” should never mean subordinating our variety and divergence to the demands of a secular state. Those demands have created problem for Catholic adoption agencies in Scotland and England, or for Muslims who want to follow traditional teachings that prohibit interest on loans while living within a society where the mortgage system is endemic.

Dr Williams tried to get to the roots of these problems, providing a fresh analysis and seeking fresh solutions. The question of how we live together as a civil and wise society while cherishing different faiths cannot be pushed away when people take fright at certain misunderstandings and allow their response to those misunderstandings to be based on misinformed and uniformed prejudices.

Tabloid emphases

Dr Williams clearly set out to rule out the very points the tabloids accused him of affirming, and distanced himself completely from stereotyping and from presentations of sharia that emphasise beatings, beheadings and the oppression of women. Some critics argued it might have been better had Archbishop Williams avoided using the word sharia altogether because of its extremely negative image in Britain. But as the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright retorted: “Think … of what the word ‘Christian’ means in a country that has been bombed to bits by the ‘Christian’ west.”

Sharia is complex and it varies from place to place. For example, the Guardian reported recently that Turkey is engaged in a bold and profound attempt to rewrite the basis for sharia law and reinterpreting the Qur'an for the modern age. This exercise in reforming Islamic jurisprudence, sponsored by the modernising and mildly Islamic government of the Prime Minister, Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is an effort to establish a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles.

This ambitious experiment may remove discrimination against women, banish some of the brutal penalties associated with sharia such as stoning and amputation, abolish the death penalty, reject honour killings, lead to women becoming imams, and redefine Islam as a modern, dynamic force in Turkey, which aspires to join the European Union.

The whole sorry affair over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interview highlights how touchy British society has become about Islam, and this is not only in reaction to recent acts of terrorism. But British law already accommodates Islamic precepts regarding not only to marriage and divorce mediation, but also those involving undertakers, cemeteries, banks and mortgages, among other issues. This has not created a parallel system, but accommodates certain areas of civil life that do not run counter to existing British law.

Sound-bite society

The archbishop was making interesting points that do not come across well in our sound-bite society. A leading evangelical within the Church of England, the Revd Andrew Goddard, formerly of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, said: “The heart of Archbishop Rowan’s now infamous lecture on Islam and the law is a vision of how to enable order, cohesion and belonging in a single political society which seeks to embrace multiple religious and other communities under the rule of law.”

Dr Williams presented an eminently sensible survey of the place of religious conscience and sensibility within a secular, multicultural society, and spoke about the role of law in defending human dignity. He is one of the most gifted minds in Britain, and his views should have received careful consideration. But the popular media misinterpreted and misrepresented what he was talking about in his lecture.

The Sun headline stated boldly: “What a Burkha.” Inside it described Dr Williams as “Archenemy” and invited readers to “Bash the bishop: join our campaign to give him the boot … 96% of readers say he must go.” Ruth Glendhill, the religious affairs correspondent of The Times, asked on her blog: “Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?” The Sunday Telegraph proclaimed: “Britain must reject this craven counsel of despair.”

Only weeks before, the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali had been misinterpreted when he spoke about the danger of no-go areas in some urban areas with large numbers of Muslims. It appears that a Church of England bishop is to be damned by the British media when he appears to be tough on Islam, and damned when he is not. As Andrew Brown pointed out in the Church Times, Archbishop Williams “had been brutally assaulted for things he never said.” The press had assaulted “the very possibility of nuanced discussion.”

In a comment on the Open Democracy website, Dr Tina Beattie of Roehampton University said: “Rowan Williams – a uniquely gifted Christian leader and one of the finest theologians alive today – has tried to open up one possible channel of informed debate with regard to law, identity and community in Britain today. Many may legitimately disagree with his ideas and worry over his formulations, but the overall response to them suggests a country whose eagerness to abuse and accuse is crushing its ability to listen and learn.”

Useful links

The full text of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture is at: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1575

A summary of what he said is at: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/digest/index.cfm/2008/2/8/What-did-the-Archbishop-of-Canterbury-actually-say

A transcript of his radio interview is at: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1573

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay first appeared in the April editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory).

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