Muslim Laws and Western Society
Altercation Over Anglican Leader's Comments
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ROME, FEB. 17, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Remarks made about the introduction of Shariah -- a strict form of Muslim law -- by England's Anglican leader, Archbishop Rowan Williams, sparked off a storm of criticism. His comments, made in the form of a speech and a separate interview with the BBC, caused such a hostile reaction that they had to be clarified in a subsequent declaration, and in another speech.
In the interview the archbishop of Canterbury declared that the introduction of some elements of Shariah law in the United Kingdom seemed "unavoidable," reported the BBC on Feb. 7. He even went so far as to affirm that accepting some elements of Shariah could help social cohesion in the country, and also suggested that marital questions could be handled in Muslim tribunals.
The speech, also given on Feb. 7, was titled "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective," the first in a series of lectures on Islam and English law at the Royal Courts of Justice. In his address Archbishop Williams questioned the assumption that all citizens should be "under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state."
The immediate reaction was extremely negative, often overlooking many shadings of the lengthy speech made by the Anglican leader. Some commentators labeled the archbishop as a "traitor" while others questioned his intelligence, his prudence, or both.
Editorials in the major daily newspapers were also antagonistic. On Feb. 8, the Times called the archbishop's remarks "astonishing," and "an act of appeasement." The Telegraph was not as hostile, but still commented that Williams should have kept his silence on this issue. The Guardian editorial was also in disagreement with the position expressed by Williams. A Financial Times editorial Feb. 9 described the archbishop of Canterbury as "badly muddled."
A reading of the actual texts of the lecture and interview reveal a more excursive argument than many of the initial media reports allowed for. Williams did, in fact, acknowledge the abuses committed in some countries due to extreme applications of Shariah, and made it clear he was not talking about introducing such measures as amputation of limbs or forced marriages.
He also qualified his suggestion of the use of Shariah by saying it should be an option, not something obligatory. "I think it would be quite wrong to say that we could ever license, so to speak, a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general," he declared in the BBC interview.
In his lecture the archbishop of Canterbury called for a reflection on how we deal with conflicts between civil law and diverging cultures and religious beliefs. He mentioned, for example, the question of conscientious objection to performing abortion, and the matter of Catholic adoption agencies being forced to assign children to homosexual couples.
A number of commentators also remarked on the difficulty of understanding what Williams exactly meant in his lecture, due to its dense and circuitous wording. In fact, rather than a cohesive argument it was more a series of ideas designed to provoke a discussion. Such a method, however, soon fell prey to selective quotation as it's not easily reduced into 30-second media bites.
On Feb. 8 the archbishop of Canterbury's Web page was forced to publish a declaration titled: "What Did the Archbishop Actually Say?" The statement cautioned that Williams "sought carefully to explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural -- including religiously plural -- society."
"In doing so the archbishop was not suggesting the introduction of parallel legal jurisdictions, but exploring ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience," the declaration continued.
Williams himself returned to the subject in an address given Feb. 11 to the Church of England's general synod. After apologizing for any "unclarity" in his earlier remarks, the archbishop went on to affirm he was not in favor of parallel jurisdictions or of negating basic human rights.
The question, he said, is "whether certain additional choices could and should be made available under the law of the United Kingdom for resolving disputes and regulating transactions." The Anglican leader also added that before the introduction of any such possibility much careful work and discussion would be needed.
"I wanted simply to offer a bit more of a framework for thinking about this controversy," the archbishop declared in concluding his remarks on the subject.
The Telegraph newspaper editorial of Feb. 12 was, nevertheless, not mollified. It declared concern that the head of a national institution would call into question a fundamental principle of justice: a single system of law equally applied to all. The editorial also questioned the weakening of British culture at a time when it is under threat from aggressive Islam.
The Guardian editorial of the same day also rapped the archbishop over the knuckles, saying that he should speak "more clearly and better in future."
Obey the law
It wasn't just the media that was critical of Archbishop Williams. On Feb. 10 the Sunday Telegraph published comments by Williams' predecessor, Lord Carey, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.
"I don't believe in a multicultural society," remarked the archbishop of Westminster. "When people come into this country they have to obey the laws of the land," the Catholic leader insisted.
Lord Carey, archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, expressed concern that separate systems could lead to the creation of Muslim ghettos. He also noted that many Muslims prefer, in fact, "to embrace the West and adapt their faith and customs to Britain."
From Africa, Anglican Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos in Northern Nigeria, was interviewed Feb. 8 by the BBC. "Our people here are in shock that an Anglican archbishop is calling for Shariah law," he exclaimed.
The situation of the church in the northern states of Nigeria where Shariah is operative is "to say the least, unbearable," declared Kwashi.
Some opinion writers also identified deficiencies in the arguments advanced by Williams. David Rivkin and Lee Casey warned in a commentary published Feb. 12 by the Wall Street Journal, "There is a critical difference between permitting some flexibility for religious practices within the larger society and encouraging separate, and potentially inconsistent, legal systems for different parts of the population."
Many commentators also drew attention to the inferior treatment of women by Islamic laws and to the problems they already suffer in England. The spread of Shariah courts would only worsen this situation, they warned.
Tension between some aspects of Islam and English society has, in fact, been very much present in recent times. On Jan. 6 the Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester published an article in the Sunday Telegraph warning that Islamic extremists have created "no-go" areas in Britain where it is too dangerous for non-Muslims to enter.
"Attempts have been made to impose an 'Islamic' character on certain areas, for example, by insisting on artificial amplification for the Adhan, the call to prayer," he also noted.
Meanwhile, an article published Sept. 7 by the Times newspaper reported that almost half of Britain's mosques are controlled by a hard-line Islamic sect called Deobandi. The sect's leading preacher, Riyadh ul Haq, supports armed jihad and preaches contempt for Jews, Christians and Hindus, according to the Times.
Discussion on how to reconcile differing cultures and religions is, indeed, a sensitive issue, and one that needs to be addressed. It is highly doubtful, however, that the proposals aired by the archbishop of Canterbury point the debate in the right direction.