Posted: Fri Feb 08, 2008 7:29 am
The Archbishop's speech - (explained) by Melanie Phillips --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The most bizarre aspect of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s extraordinary declaration today of abject religious and cultural surrender to Islam was the extreme lengths to which he went to avoid precisely the furore which has now erupted — and then proceeded dramatically to depart from his own strategy.
In a major lecture this evening, which I attended, he argued for an accommodation between English law and Islamic sharia law: an end to the ‘legal monopoly’ of English law, in order to allow people to choose between Islamic and English law for the resolution of disputes and the administration of marriage, divorce, inheritance and other matters. This incendiary proposition was nevertheless expressed in the lecture in language so convoluted and ambiguous — ‘nuanced’ is, I think, the current expression of choice — that many in the audience admitted they didn’t have a clue what on earth he was actually saying. So nervous was Lambeth Palace, however, that the press would sensationalise his remarks, it tried to control the reaction by restricting embargoed copies of the text so that few papers would be able to report the lecture — and instead giving an exclusive interview with Dr Williams to BBC Radio Four’s World at One.
Boy, was that ever a mistake. For in that interview, Dr Williams for some reason abandoned nuance altogether and left no room for doubt about what he was saying. Which was, in short, that although the
sensational reporting of opinion polls recording large numbers of British Muslims who want to live in the UK under Islamic sharia law clouds the issue, the adoption of sharia law in the UK seems
unavoidable and indeed desirable, since Muslims should not have to choose between the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty. So although nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states,
Muslims should be able to choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a sharia court. Such courts should therefore be incorporated into the British legal system as a constructive accommodation with Islam.
The result of this pre-emptive interview was that, hours before he stood up to deliver his lecture to a packed audience of more than 1000 people in the Royal Courts of Justice, he had achieved the remarkable feat of uniting the leadership of the entire political class and more — even the leader of the LibDems! — in a firestorm of condemnation of his astonishing abandonment of the fundamental doctrine of a democratic nation state: equality before the law.
His argument was quite extraordinarily muddled, absurd and wrong. The European Court of Human Rights has said that sharia law is not compatible with democracy. Dr Williams himself accepts its principles are pre-modern and oppressive. Yet, arguing disingenuously that there is no single code that can be identified as ‘the’ sharia but ignoring what inevitably follows — that one cannot therefore tell whether one will end up with the death-to-apostates code or one that is relatively benign (whatever that might mean in this context) — he nevertheless argued that the British state should recognise sharia law as of equal status to English law. On World at One, he said: An approach to law which simply said - there's one law for everybody - I think that's a bit of a danger.
The implications of this are simply staggering. One law for all is the very basis of legal and social justice and is the glue that binds a society together. Law is the expression of a society’s cultural identity. If there is no one law, there is no one national identity and therefore no society but instead a set of warring fiefdoms with their own separate jurisdictions. To enable people to chop and choose between two jurisdictions would destroy the unitary nature of British society and fragment the country. But does Dr Williams even understand what he himself has said? For after his lecture, he insisted that he was
not talking about parallel systems but how the law accommodates Muslim practice.
Yet he had specifically said people should be able to choose which system they wanted. Hello? Maybe Dr Williams himself gets lost in the impenetrable thicket of his own verbiage.
Either way, his proposal would also mean that Britain would simply abandon its female Muslim citizens whose parlous position in respect of forced marriages, honour killings and all the other horrors that follow from their second-class religious status would be institutionalised by giving sharia law official recognition. Dr Williams says such women should still retain the right of appeal to the English courts if their human rights were breached under sharia. What absurdity is this? It is the cultural assumptions which flow from sharia which lead to the oppression of Muslim women. How is the right of appeal to human rights law going to help women who are beaten and killed by men who do it in the name of religion? In order to protect our female Muslim citizens, we need to remove from them the yoke of sharia law, not institutionalise it with the seal of official approval.
Dr Williams appears to believe that English law would somehow absorb sharia. In fact, it would be absorbed by it for the simple reason that sharia brooks no alternative authority. But the yet more fundamental question is why he thinks we need to find any accommodation with sharia at all. He said
there remains a great deal of uncertainty about what degree of accommodation the law of the land can and should give to minority communities with their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes.
Well no, actually there isn’t any uncertainty at all. The rules of our society have always been entirely clear: one law for all. The only challenge to that has come from those Muslims who want to destroy that foundational precept and along with it British culture and western society. And now the head of the Anglican church has joined them in wanting to tear up the rules governing the position of minorities which have been perfectly clear ever since the Enlightenment. These rules hold that religious minorities can practise their faith and religious precepts but under the over-arching umbrella of the law of the land. That means where there is a conflict between minority precepts and the law, the minority gives way. While minorities should be given the freedom to practise their religion, they must not seek to impose their own laws and customs on the majority. That is how overlapping identities can be accommodated; it is how a majority culture can acknowledge the value of other cultures without destroying itself and a nation’s identity; it is the very essence of a tolerant, decent, liberal pluralist society.
Every minority until now has lived perfectly happily under that formulation. What we are now facing is a push by certain British Muslims, backed up by Islamist violence and intimidation, to change the rules of the national cultural game. There is only one proper response to that: to say that not one inch of leeway will be given to sharia law, that British society will not dilute the legal principles which govern all its citizens, and that Muslims must observe the same rules that govern every other minority in this country.
But then, Dr Williams purports not to understand that this indeed the case. For he used Britain’s Jewish community to underpin his claim that there was nothing particularly untoward about multiple jurisdictions — but in the process significantly misrepresented Jewish practice to imply, entirely falsely, that British Jews aren't bound by the law of the land but get an exemption. He drew an analogy between Islamic sharia courts and Jewish religious courts. But there is an absolutely crucial difference between them.
Yes, Jewish religious courts, like sharia courts, deal with such issues as dispute arbitration, family issues, marriage and divorce. But the Jewish courts have never sought official recognition of their rulings, and they are not recognised under English law. Their dispute resolution is informal and voluntary. Their religious marriage and divorce rituals have no status in English law; for the state to recognise their marriages or divorces, Jews have to marry or be divorced according to English law just like everyone else. If sharia courts were to operate in this way, there would be no problem. Why should anyone care, after all, what minorities are doing in the private sphere as long as it doesn’t break the law? But the crucial difference is that such Muslims want their rulings to be accepted by the state as having the same legal authority as English law — and Dr Williams is endorsing this. But it breaks the fundamental precept that Jews have always acknowledged — that as a minority they live under the law of the land and do not seek to change it to accommodate them.
After the lecture, I challenged Dr Williams on this point, and said he was wrong to claim that the state had delegated legal authority to Jewish religious courts. Jewish religious law was not recognised by or incorporated into English law, and so I wondered why he thought that Islam alone should be able to gain special status in opposition to the legal and cultural norms of this country. He replied:
I didn’t say that Jewish law had been incorporated; I know very well that it is not. But it has established recognised practices with regard to marriage and divorce which the law doesn’t seek to override or displace. I used the analogy not to claim privileged access for Islam but to show where a parallel system of religious law was embedded in our social practice.
But in his lecture he had in fact spoken of whether there should be …a delegation [from the law of the land] of certain functions to the religious courts of a community; and this latter question, it should be remembered, is relevant not only to Islamic law but also to areas of Orthodox Jewish practice’. On the contrary: it is not relevant to orthodox Jewish practice, because the state does not delegate any legal functions to Jewish law at all.
What Dr Williams has effectively said is that a majority culture has no right to exist and hold the ring for equal citizenship among inhabitants from different cultures:
The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural – as many political theorists have pointed out – this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities. If therefore we really don’t have the right to uphold the primacy of our own western liberal and Christian laws and traditions, the way is open for fragmentation and eventual rule by the religious culture which exercises the strongest muscle. Which is Islam.
People often say the church is now irrelevant. On the contrary — without a strong religious core providing the moral, ethical and cultural ballast, the society it has been instrumental in forming becomes intensely vulnerable to collapse and colonisation. The defence mounted by politicians becomes an empty shell — particularly when we can see they are already running scared and selling the cultural pass with measures such as sharia finance or welfare benefits for polygamous wives.
Is this really the way the history of a nation, which has for the last thousand years fought off invasion and defended its independence and the liberty it created for the world, finally ends — with the head of its established church on his knees before terror?