Archbishop to England: Take Your Fancy Schmancy Legal Tradition and Shove It

The Guardian reports today that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, raised eyebrows last night when he suggested that the UK ought to recognize sharia law. Sharia law, or Islamic law, forms the basis of the legal systems in Islamic theocracies, but is often practiced informally within other societies, particularly on matters such as marriage and divorce.

The idea that the UK--a society that like Europe at large has almost fully rejected the shackles of religious tyranny--would take such a huge leap backwards is almost unthinkable. Not only that, but one of the fundamental pillars of the British legal tradition is equal treatment under the law. While multiculturalism is a fact of life in the modern world, there's a fine line between multiculturalism (good) and exceptionalism (bad). Recognizing sharia law would cross that line... and then some.

But why, WHY would you want to do this in the UK of all places? British common law is by far Great Britain's most valuable gift to the rest of the world. Much more than just outrageous white wigs, it's a system that has evolved to promote fairness, equality, and justice while effectively balancing the often competing forces of change and stability. It forms the basis of law in the United States and in countries across the world, and it is the bedrock of stable democracies worldwide.

Although colonialism was a morally bankrupt endeavor--one that colors some of the darkest chapters in the history of our globe--former British colonies by and large escaped much better off than others, to a great extent due the stable legal systems left behind. Of course, the net gains and losses of British colonialism can be debated endlessly, and the picture that emerges is far less rosy. Regardless, British common law is at least one tick mark on the side of the positives.

Take South Africa, for example. The struggle against apartheid was far from civil, and the apartheid regime was one of the most brutal and debased in history. Despite this, the struggle was largely a legalistic one (and Nelson Mandela's skills as a lawyer were at least as important as his ability to help lead an often violent revolution) because much of the British legal system remained intact, even during South Africa's darkest hours. Or, for a more contemporary example, the situation in Pakistan only reached crisis levels when President Pervez Musharraf eviscerated the Supreme Court, removing the only true check on his power.

Fortunately, British government officials aren't having any of this nonsense from Williams:

His comments, in a lecture on civil and religious law given at the Royal Courts of Justice, were swiftly rebutted by the prime minister's spokesman, who insisted British law would be based on British values and that sharia law would be no justification for acting against national law.

"Our general position is that sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes. If there are specific instances, like stamp duty, where changes can be made in a way that's consistent with British law ... to accommodate the values of fundamental Muslims, that is something the government would look at."

Williams was also criticised by the Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi, shadow minister for community cohesion and social action. "The comments may add to the confusion that already exists in our communities," she said ... "We must ensure people of all backgrounds and religions are treated equally before the law. Freedom under the law allows respect for some religious practices. But let's be clear: all British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through parliament and the courts."

If anything this just points to the growing irrelevancy of Williams (like other religious figures in Europe). He knows that the heydays of Christian theocratic dominance in Europe are long gone, so now he's scrapping for any undue influence of religion in the secular state... fortunately to no avail.

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While I disagree with Dr Williams and I don't have a theistic bone in my body (or my head!), I do feel it is incorrect to infer anything other than benign motives to his actions. He's a nice guy and thoughtful, but unfortunately he has woolly head wrapped up in fluffy clouds and his feet don't stay on the ground. I think he genuinely was trying to promote debate on achieving a peaceful society in a multi-faith country.

The most bizarre aspect of this affair is that Dr Williams appears to be cheerleading for a competing faith! I would expect to hear church leaders commenting on church matters (gay priests, for example) or on public issues with a moral or religious dimension (abortion, shops opening on Sundays, for example), or on matters where they strongly disagree with other faith groups (polygamy, perhaps), but why oh why would Church of England leaders feel at all inclined to comment publicly and favourably on issues that are wholly between muslims and secular society and damn-all to do with the church?

No, this is just a storm in a teacup caused by a public figure not understanding how this would play on the streets.

And the immediate and total affirmation by political leaders, secular groups, many islamic groups and a huge swathe of individuals that any incorporation of sharia into secular law beyond issues of tolerance (e.g. halal slaughter, finance rules that permit islam-friendly loans) was a complete no-no has ensured that this issue has been both aired and thoroughly kicked well into the long grass.

No, sharia law in the U.K. is not going to get its feet under the secular legal table.

By Sam the Centipede (not verified) on 08 Feb 2008 #permalink

The archbishop has released a press release to explain it all.:

"In his lecture, the Archbishop sought carefully to explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural (including religiously plural) society and to see 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 (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences. In doing so the Archbishop was not suggesting the introduction of parallel legal jurisdictions, but exploring ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience."

Sounds pretty reasonable to me and even if I as an atheist do not agree with him completely, it is still a very interest topic for a discussion.

"The most bizarre aspect of this affair is that Dr Williams appears to be cheerleading for a competing faith! "
This is quite normal and is also seen in catholic schools in Belgium : being a muslim or jew is ok to enter, being an atheist is not. Compare it to the royalty of France and Austria and GB etc around 1792 : although they had been at war a few years before, as soon as the French revolution kicked in, and the principle of royalty was under threat, they all banded together against the revolution. For christian, muslim or jewish leaders when confronted to atheism or deism it is not important anymore which belief you are following, as long as you are believing at least one of them.

The idea of allowing religious courts to handle marriages/divorces and such may sound reasonable as only practitioners of a particular religion are subject to such courts, but reality is not that simple. For one, most people are born to a given religion and especially Islam isn't known for allowing people to leave the faith. The social pressure to abide by the rulings of a Sharia court can be overwhelming even for individuals that do not accept their authority. Overall such a system would work to widen the rift between muslim immigrants and the rest of the society. Also there's already examples of how such systems work in secular societies from the Christian realm: Consider the Catholic pedophile scandal and the Magdalene Asylums in Ireland.

I think that the best way to combat these subversive ideas is to get people who would be affected by them to speak out, i.e. moderate muslims, who understand that a secular society actually serves their interests.

It is neither benign nor thoughtful, to promote the woman-hating strictures of Islam on any level. Most of the world's religions are profoundly anti-woman, and of course, Islam is no exception. Sharia is the motive behind the recent murders of women in Iraq, where one may be struck down by strangers for having an uncovered head, or wearing makeup, or walking without a male.
This type of appeasement to tyranny is the ugliest side of liberalism, and will lead to more suffering in the world. Those who wish to live under sharia have many places to do so. It is in all of our best interests that their hateful practices be limited, not expanded.

For more detail, including actual transcripts, take a look at the analysis by Geoff Pullum at Language Log. (Google it.) Like the first poster said, Williams seems quite the academic theologian and he was widely misquoted. One wonders if the reporters just shrugged and said "not sure I understand this, let's string together a couple of good sound bites" and word of mouth took over from there.

megs does have an excellent point - even if the parties mutually agree (perhaps) to this kind of cultural "arbitration" (and this is not an a priori bad idea), it still must not be allowed to conflict with the essential human rights guaranteed by secular law.

Thanks for the link (I just noticed it in my site referrals). To be clear, I don't doubt that the press has stomped on nuances and quite possibly made the Archbishop's position sound worse than it is (Geoff Pullum's final take seemed to be that the man should be packed off to a theology department where he can do no harm). My post focused on an aspect which I think is independent and which, frankly, I find more interesting: how public voices in the UK seem able to get away with saying things that their counterparts in the US can't.