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)


David said...

Rowan Williams is being borked.

Or Borged (and I hang my head in shame for that horrible Star Trek reference...)

Maybe the Archbishop should stick up for the rights of Christians before worrying over the Muslims!

A better statement for him to make would have been to demand the Saudis decriminalize the act of carrying a Bible in public! (Or, for that matter, of being a Christian).

The Christian world has been catering to Muslims for a very long time now. I think it's long over due for a little reciprocation.

Mari said...

I read the piece and interpret it as, "my this is sure complex, we should yammer on about this and how complex it is." In his example of the Muslim woman at Mark & Sparks, what of the right of the owner or the shopper, or the distributer? I sense a contract violation there. Who is supposed to yield and why? In a multi-cultural society differing rights will conflict, and it doesn't help if the dominate culture is being wishy washy and won't defend its own members or its foundations. It shouldn't be oppressive or unyeilding but it should be able to make a stand, which I don't trust European society to do.

Roland said...

Maybe the Archbishop should stick up for the rights of Christians before worrying over the Muslims!

While his lecture was framed in terms of accommodating Muslims, since that was the topic he was given to speak on, he also mentioned accommodation of the consciences of Christians. He specifically cited the exemption given to Catholic adoption agencies from the requirement to give equal consideration to gay would-be adopters.

Roland said...

I found this interesting comment on Abp. Rowan's lecture on the Lapido Media Blog:
"The Archbishop's Bomb":

Roland said...

The Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, weighs in on the controversy . . .

A Serious Issue that Requires Sensitivity

"The astonishing misrepresentation of Archbishop Rowan in virtually all newspapers over the last few days, and the scorn and anger which this has fueled, have caused many people within the church to ask what on earth is going on. The issues are complex, but let me try to highlight the key points. . . ."

James the Thickheaded said...

I am willing to buy that the Archbishop earned his stripes as a bright academic. And yet we are taught there is a reason many distinguish between academic learning and wisdom... and this sad issue attests to that in spades.

But it was indeed his brilliance, his writing, and insight that earned him the appointment. After all, he's supposed to be the "intellectual filler" between the next "evangelical builder" the Queen appoints to run her church. (Clearly can't happen soon enough - if there's to be a foundation stone left! - but that's a separate... though related story).

I also know that sometimes we can outsmart ourselves and succumb to believing that we can nuance circumstances and endeavor to please the opinions of men... only to falter in applying ourselves to our more pressing responsibilities.... which then tend to fray from inattention. Been there, done that. In the end, we occasionally learn the merit of keeping our noses where they belong. Maybe not the first time, or second time mind you... but e-ven-tu-al-ly. It's never pretty when it happens... as it has here. Nothing new in this. Still, you gotta feel for the guy.... but maybe only so far.

Roland said...

Mari comments: Who is supposed to yield and why? In a multi-cultural society differing rights will conflict, and it doesn't help if the dominate culture is being wishy washy and won't defend its own members or its foundations.

In this instance, one must ask just what the dominant culture is. Archbishop Rowan's critics could not agree on this. The Bishop of Rochester's response assumed the roots of the English legal tradition are Judeo-Christian, while leaders of the Conservative Party assumed those roots are secular. They both thought they were defending the status quo against inroads of Sharia, but they can't agree on the extent to which the status quo already accommodates Christianity. This disagreement proves +Rowan's point - the question of how and whether religious faith and practice are to be legally accommodated is overdue for serious consideration and explicit legal treatment in the UK.

Roland said...

Two recent issues of "Sightings," published by the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago, addressed Abp. Rowan's lecture. First, Marty himself wrote a short article, "On Rowan Williams," in which he cited the views of the editors of The Economist. Second, John Witte, Jr., used the archbishop's lecture as a jumping-off point for exploration of the growing diversification of marriage in "The Frontiers of Marital Pluralism."