Perhaps we should listen?

11 Feb

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been behaving quite differently from the standard political mould lately. I am sure he would regard this as a valid part of his prophetic duties. He is of course not infallible, and his opinions, to me, are no more influential than anyone else’s.

Consider just since December:

And now he has apparently recommended that the UK might consider the application of Sharia law in certain circumstances. This was on a BBC Radio Four interview, full text here.

CL 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?

ABC 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. What we don’t want I think is either a stand-off where the law squares up to religious consciences over something like abortion or indeed by forcing a vote on some aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the commons as it were a secular discourse saying ‘we have no room for conscientious objections’; we don’t want that, we don’t either I think want a situation where because there’s no way of legally monitoring what communities do, making them part of public process, people do what they like in private in such a way that that becomes a way of intensifying oppression within a community and that happens; that happens. So how does the law engage critically and intelligently – the law of the land – with the custom, the imperatives, the principles of distinctive religious communities? It’s a large question, much larger than the question about Islam and I think it’s a question which the Church can quite reasonably be thinking about.

This produced the responses you might expect, but consider:

1. Here in Australia the Jewish Beth Din in Melbourne already is capable of hearing certain matters: Melbourne Beth Din set to hear commercial disputes.

2. There are those, though for some this remains controversial, who believe an accommodation between Aboriginal Customary Law and Australian Common Law may deliver better justice in some circumstances.

In any non-monocultural society such issues are bound to arise, and it may well be that the Archbishop is pointing to something eminently reasonable. I don’t think he is advocating the stoning to death of adulterers, for example, despite the excellent Biblical precedents.

I was interested in these reactions culled from around WordPress lately:

The Archbishop and Sharia Law by Dave Keating, an American journalist living in London.

The problem may be that Williams comes from academia and is an intellectual, and his ethereal, pontificatory statements have been confusing for Anglicans/Episcopalians around the world. All of Europe is currently grappling with the issue of how to assimilate the large and growing Muslim population in their midst, and it tends to be the most incendiary issue of the day. The right-leaning tabloids in the UK were practically falling all over themselves to heap as much scorn as possible on the archbishop today. “Victory for Terrorism!” declared The Sun, for instance. It seems the Archbishop couldn’t have handed a better gift on a silver platter to the tabloids. And with Tory leader David Cameron recently saying London could eventually be turned into “Londonistan,” his comments are a great gift to the Tories as well.

Of course it should be pointed out that at no point did Williams ever advocate for Shariah law, as the tabloids are reporting, he merely argued that such a development was “inevitable”. But it’s hard to see the logic in even this statement. Indeed, the idea that the UK would apply different laws to different citizens based on their religion is rather absurd. But in an age of heightened sensitivities about Islam’s place in the West, it’s interesting to see how even speculation about this possibility gets everybody so worked up.

The Archbishop’s storm in a teacup by a Minnesota expat.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has caused a lot of trouble by saying something sensible.  Meanwhile, the British press (even the BBC) is acting like its normal hysterical tabloid self and turning it into an even bigger storm in a teacup.  Let’s recap…

Sharia Law in the UK from Feminist Philosophers.

…The Archbishop now says his remarks were misinterpreted, but unfortunately his clarification isn’t really much help. I find myself thinking that discussing this would be a great way to get students interested in issues of law and justice in multicultural societies, but also getting discouraged by the very unsatisfying degree of clarity in the discussions I’m finding.

    I first noted the story in Five Public Opinions, and responded there: Has Archbishop Williams lost the plot?

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    Posted by on February 11, 2008 in Christianity, faith, interfaith, Islam, multiculturalism, pluralism


    3 responses to “Perhaps we should listen?

    1. arthurvandelay

      February 11, 2008 at 11:02 pm

      I don’t think he is advocating the stoning to death of adulterers, for example, despite the excellent Biblical precedents.

      He isn’t, and he explicitly said so. In the BBC interview, he was suggesting that a distinction be drawn be sharia as a method and sharia as an explicit set of laws (by way of pointing out that certain Islamic scholars do make this distinction).

    2. ninglun

      February 11, 2008 at 11:10 pm

      No quarrel with that, Arthur. I commend the full transcript to everyone. I notice too some interesting comment on the operation of Aboriginal customary law from Bruce on your post — the one mentioned at the end of mine.

    3. NFAH

      February 24, 2008 at 11:54 am

      Exactly, the Archbishop’s statements were taken out of context and from hearing him speak I doubt any rational person would mistake his position for that of the full and antiquated Sharia law position. His statement was in some ways particularly American in that the US adopts parts of law of other cultures without accepting any one code, and this is likely the reason multiculturization has been more successful in the US than in the UK!

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