Friday, February 8, 2008

Archbishop Rowan and Sharia

Yesterday, Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered the first lecture in a series of discussions, "Islam in English Law," as part of the 2008 Temple Festival, at the Royal Courts of Justice. Entitled, "Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective," it was a long, academic think piece of the sort Abp. Rowan is known for. His topic was how and whether the legal system should accommodate the religious identities and motivations of its citizens. In keeping with the theme of day, he focused primarily on the example of Islamic sharia law, but in this increasingly secular age the topic is obviously of as much interest to Christians as to Muslims. The Anglican Communion News Service summarizes his lecture here, followed by the full text. Here is Abp. Rowan's own statement of the problem he is addressing:

There is a recognition that our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging – even if one of those sets is regarded as relating to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a 'covenant' between the divine and the human (as in Jewish and Christian thinking; once again, we are not talking about an exclusively Muslim problem). The danger arises not only when there is an assumption on the religious side that membership of the community (belonging to the umma or the Church or whatever) is the only significant category, so that participation in other kinds of socio-political arrangement is a kind of betrayal. It also occurs when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.

Abp. Rowan's overarching concern in this lecture is how traditional religious identity and morality might be accommodated in the face of a post-Enlightenment secular legal system that often regards religious loyalties as irrelevant or alien. He certainly realizes the difficulties and dangers that might be entailed by accommodating sharia, and his thoughtful discussion of these difficulties accounts for much of the lecture's length. His examples of legal accommodation of religion went beyond Islam, with references to Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism.

Before the lecture, he was interviewed by BBC Radio 4. In that interview he said, "It seems unavoidable and indeed is a matter of fact that certain provisions of sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law." The news site thisislondon twisted this one sentence, taken out of context, into the misleading headline, "Adoption of Islamic Sharia law in Britain is 'unavoidable'," and trumped up the dire implications of sharia while burying his caveats several paragraphs into the article. (I have not included a link to the original article because it is no longer available. Thisislondon continually revises and updates its articles to keep them current – and perhaps to bury their tracks. Here is the BBC version.) This sensationalism elicited the predictable Pavlovian response from the populace, and within a day the archbishop's enemies and detractors on both the left and the right, in both the church and the government, were calling for his resignation. It is clear from their intemperate, uninformed responses that they had neither read the lecture nor heard the interview, and probably had not even read the on-line articles beneath the sensationalistic headlines. Ignorance, unfortunately, is not a bar against political and religious posturing.

Abp. Rowan's statement that sharia is already present in Britain is hard to dispute. This article from the Evening Standard tells of an instance where a group of Somali youths who stabbed another teenager was released by the police to face justice in a sharia law court. (Their families ended up having to compensate the victim.) The article also mentioned that sharia courts in Britain already hear thousands of divorce cases every year.

What is really going on here? Rowan Williams is being borked. All of his enemies see a weakness that they hope they can exploit if they are quick enough and loud enough. They assume – probably correctly – that like Robert Bork before him, Abp. Rowan's thoughts are too lengthy and too complex to interest the average citizen, and that he can therefore easily be mischaracterized in the media without penalty.

O LORD, watch over us and save us from this generation for ever. (Psalm 12:7)