Sunday 10 February 2008

Sharia and the Archbishop

Sharia and the Archbishop – Why Rowan Williams is Wrong

The decision by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to argue that the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK "seems unavoidable", because some of Muslim citizens do not relate to the British legal system, has drawn a storm of protest. Williams is a noted theologian and has a reputation as a liberal, not least for his opposition to the Iraq war and his call for reparations for the slave trade. But his statement has mainly attracted fury from the right-wing press because they see the word ‘sharia’ and quiver with rage about an attack on British values, particularly as groups like the Muslim Council of Britain have welcomed Williams’ views. Condemnation from Tory newspapers is to be expected, but it shouldn’t mean that we offer Williams the least sympathy. He may be more liberal than his predecessors but his arguments on this issue are profoundly reactionary. And the only voice raised against them cannot come from those motivated principally by a hatred of Muslims.

The basis for all progressive thought is a simple idea: that all humanity is part of one family. From this starting point, the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq are equally as important as the 2,974 fatalities on 11 September 2001, slavery is always an affront to humanity and asylum seekers have as much right to dignity and freedom as British citizens. If we believe we are all one family then the fact that around 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water (and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation) is horrifying and a situation where the richest 2 percent of adults in the world own more than half the world's wealth, whilst half the world - nearly three billion people - live on less than two dollars a day, demands action. One of the strongest criticisms of the documents like the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, finely worded though they undoubtedly are, is the way they are celebrated by governments in the northern hemisphere and then systematically ignored. State violence against the world’s people is the most obvious example of this – in late 2007 there were 24 states directly affected by ongoing wars – and it is the arms manufacturers of the G8 countries that are largely responsible for sustaining these conflicts.

But it is not only governments that are profoundly hypocritical about humanity encompassing one universal family. Organised religion, although claiming to be founded on principles of peace and love, is fundamentally based on exclusivity and division, on the premise that those who have not embraced its deities are most definitely not part of the same family. As a result, every religious establishment has demanded that its exclusivity must provide it with exemptions from ideas of universal rights and freedoms, on the basis that its laws come directly from whichever Creator it happens to subscribe to. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, for example, qualifies all human rights as subject to the strictures of Sharia, whilst Catholic Church have demanded the right to exemption from UK discrimination laws in order to discriminate against lesbian and gay adoption. This extends to exemption from criticism - the Church of England actively campaigned for the introduction of laws on religious hatred even though religion, unlike race, is a matter of personal choice and about ideas on which people can change their minds and have vigorous debate. Only vigorous opposition ensured that the eventual legislation was diluted to such an extent to make it almost unenforceable in all but the most clear-cut cases.

Religion’s sectarian rules differ completely from secular laws that apply equally to everyone, not least because secularism has the capacity to provide for the freedom to follow any religious belief (no matter how little evidence there might be for it in experience and reason) or to choose not to. This is because the imposition of theocracy is fundamentally about the exercise of control over the faithful, over those who dissent from the ‘correct’ interpretation of ‘the word of God’ and over those who wish to think differently, or even to renounced their faith. Every time the advocates of religious lawmaking ask us to ignore the exercise of theocratic regimes in the real world as somehow unrepresentative or illegitimate, they are effectively admitting that no matter how much they argue sectarian laws are handed down by their God, in practice all law is man-made and all legal systems controlled by those who wish to use it as a means of social control.

Not all liberals would agree. Deborah Orr, writing in the Independent, argues that Williams has been misinterpreted, that “far from pandering to extremists, he is thinking about how to beat them at their own game.” Orr believes that “a religious body that took seriously the business of distinguishing between religious and cultural demands could be an asset in a pluralist society.” She asks that we “imagine a legally and religiously recognised board of religious Muslim people, widely supported, and committed to taking a lead in plotting a modern yet Islamic attitude to the rights of women in Britain and around the world. It could be rather wonderful, and is quite a different proposition from the one we have been led to believe that Williams made.”

But such a formally recognised religious body exists only in Orr’s imagination. The reality is far more likely to be that the semi-official status of any British sharia court would make it both a battleground between those who think themselves best able to interpret what is man-made and what is God-given law, and a reinforcement of the very cultural conservative values that progressive Muslims seek to overcome. Moreover, Muslims do not constitute a homogenous faith: there are considerable differences in opinion within Islam (especially between the Sunni and Shia traditions) requiring not one sharia court but many.

And what would they be used for? Williams argues they would be nothing more than a means of arbitrating disputes – a kind of Islamic Acas. The idea of a market place for different legal authorities offering a greater range of ‘choice’ seems very in keeping with the times, but experience suggests clearly that powerful cultural prejudices can change real choice into an obligation to participate. If you are told from childhood that a sharia court is ‘your court’ and that the civil courts are for the unbelievers, making a choice becomes a far harder step to make.

The basis of the Archbishop’s claim that sharia courts seem unavoidable is that they already exist. That’s undoubtedly true and if some people are foolish enough to trust a system based on thirteen hundred year old hard certainties then they have the freedom to visit bodies such the Islamic Sharia Council up the road from me in Leyton. It has issued edicts reinforcing the need for a wife to pay off her husband to be granted divorce, banning the release of an animated film about Mohammad, pronounced on the necessity of Muslim men to wear beards, and of Muslim women to wear a hijab because (and I kid you not) “free mixing with men lead to scandals like that of Mr Clinton & Monica which is not acceptable in Islam which invites for a clean and pure society”. Those Muslims can of course decide to follow the Council’s rulings, although most others (amongst my friends, certainly) pick and choose the limits of the faith. But such ‘law-making’ as this definitely has no business being accorded even the least degree of quasi-official status.

There is one final conclusion from William’s musings. Part of the reason they have been given so much coverage is precisely because the Archbishop of Canterbury is the leader of the established church and apparently (this was news to me) the highest-ranking non-royal in the United Kingdom's order of precedence, higher even than the Prime Minister, for whatever that may be worth.

If religious authorities cannot be trusted to refrain from promoting exclusivity or continually engaging in special pleading, surely it’s time to admit that the idea of a ‘state religion’, even one that is no longer a fully fledged theocracy, has had its day?

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