What the bishop said
First things first. Despite what the more rabid wings of the press are saying, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, did not call for the adoption of Sharia law in Britain. He said that the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK “seems unavoidable”. There’s a clear difference which is being avoided by those with a desire for a sensational headline.
And importantly, we must avoid the shrill non sequiturs of those whose logic leads them from Dr Williams’ words to “If Muslims want Sharia law in Britain…” I wasn’t aware that British Muslims in significant numbers were pressing for this. And I think that’s because they’re not.
Some of what the Archbish said made sense, though it might have been couched in better terms. One important fact to remember is that “under English law people may devise their own way to settle a dispute before an agreed third party.” So we’re talking about an existing English legal framework in which civil disputes can be settled by any means agreed by the two parties. And this already occurs in Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities. It’s nothing new.
But this is where the logic breakdown occurs. No one is calling for the recognition of Sharia in criminal cases. That would not only be wholly inappropriate, but also unworkable. And it’s not what he or anyone sensible is talking about.
What we should criticise Williams for, though, is what he did say – that “the UK has to face up to the fact that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.”
Why? Surely the responsibility lies with those who don’t relate to the legal system, not with the legal system itself. He goes on to say that “Muslims find themselves ‘faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty’ and that Britain will only be able to come to terms with its multi-faith society if its legal system learns to adapt.”
Why is he placing the onus of responsibility on the state, rather than those who are having difficulty adapting? When one is in Rome, does Rome make a special effort to pander to your perceived needs?
I think the Muslim community is quite capable of addressing the issue of where it stands in British society itself. I’m not saying they should do it alone, but they have to be the ones to determine their place in the system as it is.
Finally, though, it’s important to place all this in its correct perspective. Dr Williams is not a politician, he has no direct political influence or mandate. This is just his personal opinion, whatever one might think of it. He was probably inviting a storm of protest whatever he said on the matter, though he has been particularly poorly served by the BBC, who headlined the interview simply “Sharia law in the UK ‘unavoidable’.”
The archbishop said “that anxieties ‘haunt the discussion of the place of Muslims in British society’,” and it was interesting to see people (including senior politicians) reacting hysterically to what they think Williams said. It illustrates how multiculturalism in Britain is on the road to failure, simply because no one has ever had a clear vision of how or if it would work. What does it even mean? What it appears to mean at the moment is that any time a debate is opened, the media love to inflame the situation making it almost a taboo, emotions rule over logic and whatever good there might have been is shouted down by the automatically-outraged.