Monday, February 11, 2008

The Archbishop's Sharia Mistake

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, recently stated that he believes the eventual adoption of some aspects of sharia law into British law is unavoidable. This has caused quite an outcry.

As an Episcopalian and thus part of the Anglican Communion, I’m familiar with Archbishop Rowan. He’s a very thoughtful man and a wonderful writer. He has had the misfortune of inheriting a church that is greatly divided over social issues, particularly whether to accept or condemn homosexuality. He also has the misfortune of being a poor politician. This is not the first time he’s made less-than-wise political statements. But it is the largest denunciation of his words.

Taken at face value, his comments on sharia law are quite condemnable. There is little reason to think Britain could maintain its equal rights or even its democracy under a plural legal system, one of which strictly limits certain freedoms held dear in Western culture. However, in the greater context of British thought and law, Dr. Williams’ comments make a little more sense, even though they remain worthy of rebuke.

Sharia courts already operate in Great Britain. Although their status is unofficial, British authorities have generally allowed them to continue and Dr. Williams is hardly the first to argue that a plural legal system could be acceptable.

In fact, Dr. Williams’ mistake was not so much the suggestion that there’s room for sharia courts in Britain, but that the adoption of some sharia law into British law is unavoidable. To that point, John O’Sullivan of The New York Post says:

The archbishop's use of the word "unavoidable" was significant: It reflects not just his mindset but that of British ministers and the country's wider multicultural establishment - who would like to protect rights such as gender equality in law but positively shrink from any conflict with ethno-cultural groups that oppose and threaten them.

If that mindset prevails, then sharia - women's second-class status and all - will indeed be unavoidable.

That, I think, is the crux of the problem. Dr. Williams sees the creep of sharia law into the British system and, rather than voicing concern about the trend, has decided acquiescence is the more appropriate reaction. It’s not. But for a religious scholar of a denomination known for accommodating new ideas and permitting dissent, I’m not too surprised by Dr. Williams’ remarks.

Clearly, the Archbishop was wrong and all of us who condemn his statement are right to do so. But we must remember that this man is not a legal scholar or a politician. He’s a religious man whose concerns are more with divine grace than contemporary concepts of freedom. Yes, I would prefer an Archbishop with a more worldly sense of human rights (particularly women’s rights), but I can understand why a religious leader might choose conciliation rather than confrontation with another religion. Rowan Williams is no radical and shouldn’t be treated as such.

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Blogger bucyrus said...

True dat ASC. What did I say the other day? Oh yeah, ..."a cultural chamberlain."

This relates strongly to the main problem in some forms of multiculturalist thought, which I also relate to pacificsm. Some folks are so devoted to the beautiful dream of peaceful coexistence that they'll do anything to avoid the fact that, well, sometimes push really does come to shove.

Trying to find away to win/win is a splendid preference. But if and when push comes to shove, you may need to pick a side.

This is especially true when it comes to a nation's legal system, which is an embodiment of the culture that the nation is choosing.

If the western peoples can't come together to unconditionally support the civil equality of females (just to name one), there's no hope for us.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...

It's good to see a calm, thoughtful post on this sort of topic.

I agree that the Archbishop's remarks were "worthy of rebuke." And, that he is nowhere close to being a politician.

It seems that you see his statement as coming from an unwillingness to violate the politically correct principle of not criticizing designated minority groups' behavior or customs.

That's likely enough.

It's too bad that the United Kingdom has such a mess on its hands - things are a bit crazy over here in America, too.

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At what point does the tyranny of the minority come to a halt. Accommodating every group's issues is impractical at best and at worst infringes upon the rights of other groups. If I choose to move to Mexico, I expect I must learn to speak spanish, I do not expect the Mexican education system to acquiesce to my english speaking ways. Many muslims have made a conscious choice to move away from their home country. They are welcome to practice their religion as they wish - freedom of religion is part of western heritage - but they are owed no duty nor do they have an expectation that the country they have moved to should change its ways to accommodate their special interest. Would Jews be entitled to the same acommodation in Iran? Iraq? Jordan? What about westerners in Saudi Arabia? China? Obviously 2 wrongs don't make a right, but the point is while wester societies are constantly changing - the current trent to multi-culturalism is a path to ethnic conflict.

7:45 AM  
Blogger bucyrus said...

FWIW, various forms of multicultural philosophy suggest differing levels of tolerance and accommodation.

I tend to prefer the brand that acknowledges the bright line that the law provides, a single standard for everyone. This form preserves the rough notion that your freedom to do as you please becomes constrained as you begin to infringe on others. So for example, you are basically free to practice your religion as you see fit, but if you beat your wife, thereby violating the law, the matter is no longer a religious issue, it's a legal issue.

This guy is advocating plural standards as a way of further accomodating idiosyncratic religious beliefs, apparently even if they break the law. This does not surprise me coming from an archbishop. This is not the first time that a religious figure from a western nation has suggested that their conception of God ought to be placed above the law.

And I'm not buying it. Not from Roy Moore, not from Muqtada Al-Sadr, not from the archbishop. No sale.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Neale Adams said...

For North Americans, especially, Williams comments are difficult. But one must remember he comes from a country with an established church. The Queen is not just head of the state, she is also head of the Church of England. North Americans long ago rejected the notion that there should be an established church - a politically official religion - and insisted on a hard separation between church and state. They were horrified by Europe's religious wars.
But Williams sees a political role for religion and, since many in Britain are Muslim, that "inevitably" results in a political role for sharia law. I'm not sure if the negative reaction is Britain is due to a belief that church and state should be separate, but it's rather simply that Islam is the wrong religion and Christianity should dominate.
But in North America at least the state is neutral in order that everyone can practice the religion they want. If state and religious law conflict, state prevails. But people will accept this arrangement only if the state truly is neutral. Unfortunately in the US today, there have been too many politicians who are willing to blur the line and give precedence to "Christian" values. That's dangerous. Fortunately though the courts have held the line, so far.

11:21 AM  

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