Rowan Williams' Penance: Britain and the Sharia
Last Thursday, the day after the Christian penitential season of Lent began, Rowan Williams took up his cross in a new and unforeseen way. Just when many thought his greatest challenge and burden in the first part of 2008 was the fragmentation besetting the world-wide Anglican Communion, a firestorm has erupted in
The most interesting and worrisome thing about this new controversy is not the content of Dr Williams’ lecture, or even the broader issue of Islamic law in Britain, but the violence of the reaction. Outpourings of horror and derision have come from thousands of people who have no idea what he actually suggested, and hundreds who think they do, but have responded to his assumed views without meaningful reference to his actual words. The Archbishop hit a nerve that has sent a whole section of British society into paroxysms not so much about what he said, as about what they fear.
The proposals the Dr Williams made were actually quite unremarkable, consisting of some gentle, and fairly incidental, glances at the emerging but far from complete accommodation in
The Archbishop’s thoughts were as much a description of existing and emerging legal practice as a call for change. There are many examples in the
We might be properly concerned about how such sub-systems dove-tail with the wider application of civil law, and about maintaining the values or opportunities that have to prevail in a free society. Dr Williams himself was more than clear, stating adamantly that no Islamic (or other) system working as an adjunct to the civil law could be allowed to disadvantage women, for instance, on the basis of custom or culture: “no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights”.
Yet the public commentary since last Thursday has assumed or asserted that the Archbishop said or implied something quite different: some speak as though he called for a whole code of Islamic law to be implemented, including the worst excesses of the Taliban; others, that he envisaged British Courts themselves administering Sharia instead of British law. These and various other accusations since levelled at him are quite untrue.
Why, when all this is so important for
Dr Williams has set an example as important as it is forlorn. Few in
Of course legal or quasi-legal processes linked to religious and/or ethnic communities are particularly sensitive – but this is why they have to be discussed openly by community leaders. Muffling the debate under hoots and howls is a recipe for disaster. The fear and ignorance abroad about Islam in particular simply cannot be presented as part of a political or social landscape that a canny ecclesiastical bureaucrat will avoid. It must be named and faced, and changed.
If there is hope to be gleaned from this sorry state of affairs, it will be through some few who persist in telling the truth. Dr Williams was right to raise the issue, whether he is right about the particulars of accommodating Sharia in