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February 20, 2008

On the Archbishop of Canterbury and sharia law: We need less religious privilege not more

The Church of England is commonly regarded as one of the most mild-mannered and innocuous of modern religious institutions. But its representatives seem to be making something of a habit of betraying this reputation. The latest wave of absurdity began with the Bishop of Carlisle, who following last summer’s floods explained that, “We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation.” Elaborating further, the bishop cited the recent ban on businesses discriminating against homosexuals. If so, one rather wonders why the divine being aimed the deluge at gruff Yorkshire. Why not fabulous Brighton? Why not mincing Soho?

But it was the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who ultimately severed the Church’s already tenuous relationship with liberalism and reason. The incorporation of aspects of sharia law into British law was, he declared last week, “unavoidable”. Dispelling the possibility that this might have been a slip of the tongue, he declared that the idea that “there’s one law for everybody” was dangerous. Inevitably, Williams balked at “the kind of inhumanity” that sees women and homosexuals stoned in theocratic Iran and Saudi Arabia. But effectively he maintained that Muslims, and implicitly other religious groups, should be privileged with separate laws in areas such as financial and family matters. It was the fatalistic tone as much as the content that grated, and the short shrift that the major parties have given to Williams’ proposal reminds us that separate laws are by all means avoidable. Wrong in principle and unworkable in practice, this proposal deserves to be greeted with contempt.

The social cohesion that Williams apparently aspires to would be best served not by segregated laws but by a fully secular state. He is right to point out that English law allows individuals to reach their own settlement in front of an agreed third party, as existing sharia and Jewish rabbinical courts do, but he is wrong to argue that any formalisation of this is either possible or desirable. Islamic scholarship contains no fewer than five major interpretations of sharia law. Which is to be adopted? And on whose authority? Williams conspicuously ducked this issue. A secular state, which privileges no religion and protects all, is the most reliable means to integration. Believers who wish to change the law should democratically campaign to do so, as all free citizens can.

Secularists have long dreaded the persecution and bloodletting that the religious have historically inflicted on each other. But juxtaposed with this is a lingering fear that the faithful, notably those who regard Abraham as a common father, will eventually pool their resources in a common front against the secular. It is in this context that the Archbishop’s favourable attitude to what is, after all, a rival faith must be understood. One is reminded of Prince Charles, who upon his mother’s death will become Supreme Governor of the Church, and his professed wish once King to be known as ‘Defender of Faith’ not ‘Defender of the Faith’. Watch as House of Lords reform comes round once more and the Church, desperate to hold on to its coterie of unelected bishops, proposes that each faith should be awarded a quota of ‘representatives’.

At a time when a few courageous individuals have been brave enough to publicly form the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, (the Hadith prescribes death for apostates), Williams has given succour to Islamist patriarchs who may well cherish state legitimation for the right, maintained under all interpretations, to remarry while refusing their first wife a divorce. He has simultaneously pandered to the essentialist doctrine of the nationalist far right, who think British law only fit for white Anglo-Saxons, and that of the Islamist right, who seek outright sharia law. He should be removed from office as a prelude to the removal of his Church from the state.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 12/02/08


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