Why the Archbishop got it wrong

Whether Rowan Williams is a good man or a bad man; an intellectual or an academic; a highly sensitive soul or a machinating demagogue or whether or not he deserved the tabloid-led backlash is irrelevent to the position that he took when he delivered his speech, Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective.

What the archbishop did was draw a line in the sand between universal secular law and religious practice and declared that the latter had arrogantly taken upon itself the role of prime mover in shaping civil society while at the same time dismissing the contribution made by religious ideas and practice.

Rowan Williams’ support for Sharia law comes not because he particularly likes Muslims as such but because he would like Sharia to be partially exempted from secular law. This is not as contentious as it sounds since the Church itself is exempt from secular laws that protect homosexuals and women. Hence the church is free to choose whether or not to employ gays, and is legally protected in doing so.

Why then the massive furore? Well, let’s go back to the line the archbishop drew in the sand. On one side of it Williams has placed secular liberalism and on the other side he places Religion. His intention is that is all faith-based communities, led by the Church of England, should throw off the pretence of compatibility with secular liberalism once and for all. This is contentious and it will not go down without a battle. I suspect the archbishop would very much like Sharia law to be the crucible in which this battle should be fought.

This is shocking to most Christian liberals because they have been led to believe that Christianity and liberal ideas such as secularism are wholly compatible. It should also be shocking to Muslims, because the last thing they should want is to become the footsoldiers of the bidding of a resurgent Christian elite who are painfully aware of their ever decreasing influence.

It also goes without saying that this should be rejected by Muslims who do not agree with the archbishop’s reactionary views and are opposed to Sharia law sidling up to civil law unless and until it can be formally codified and reformed. As a Muslim I will raise my hand to say that I will never support Sharia to become paramount to secular civil law in any way or form. On this I am in complete agreement with Ali Eteraz. Read his article on why Sharia arbitration courts should be opposed in the UK. Notice that most of the articles full of enraged, spittle-flecked derision in the tabloids and in blogs following his speech were directed not at Rowan Williams but at, you guessed it, “the Muslims”.

Sharia should exist informally and dictate religious practice and spiritual ethics. But that’s a light year or two away from having parallel courts that dispense religious code that override civil law. My reasons for resisting Sharia courts are listed below:

1) This would create preferential levels of legal coverage giving Muslims the perception of exclusivity. I don’t have to tell you that this would be a recipe for more social schism between Muslims and every one else, thereby making Muslims even more of the “other” than they already are. Not to mention create a dangerous social cleavage between Sharia-Muslims and non-Sharia Muslims, causing even more civil strife.

2) Sharia would formalise a system whereby Muslims pay deference to indisputable laws of hereditary and punishment which are imbalanced and unfair towards women and daughters and which even most Muslim countries are unwilling to implement, and rightly so.

3) It would be counterintuitive for the large majority of Muslims who benefit from broad, well considered and pluralist British law. The British legal system should be held up as an example to Muslim-majority countries who are struggling to build full democratic polities in which non-Muslims minorities are often disenfranchised.

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