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Article No. 158

The Sharia row


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Over the last few days an astonishing eruption of public opinion has occurred - all because of some comments in a lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury (hereafter ABC) to a group of high flying lawyers.

The details are common knowledge but to recapitulate briefly: last week the ABC gave a lecture to a large body of the highest and best legal brains in the country. Some elements of that lecture were extracted by some journalists and highlighted in their papers the next day. Because of the incendiary nature of the subject, and because of the way that the matter was reported, a public outcry resulted.

The inference from the headlines in the tabloid press - and a number of the broadsheets too - was that the ABC was in favour of sharia law being introduced here in parallel with English law. Understandably, the impact of this idea was so great that immediately all sorts of people went into print or talked via the media giving their views, which were mostly that the ABC was totally wrong and that his ideas would not work and that they were not even sure anymore whether he was fit to be the Archbishop of Canterbury if he had such ideas.

Why is this subject so incendiary? Because many English people have heard - and some have seen pictures of - the barbaric treatment meted out to wrongdoers under sharia law in some other countries. Hands have been cut off. People have seen stoned. And raped women have been unable to get any form redress - to instance just a few examples. All such illustrations of sharia law in operation have resulted in an abhorrence in most English people for the very word sharia, never mind the awful acts done in its name. That is why the very word ‘sharia’ is so incendiary.

The way the lecture was reported is also germane. When one reads the lecture it is clear where the papers got their ideas. They seem to have taken a phrase here and a sentence on the surface there and just extrapolated them to produce the extraordinary and totally wrong idea that the ABC wanted sharia law here in a parallel position with our English Law.

That, of course, is not what the ABC was saying. Bear in mind that he was talking in the Royal Courts of Justice to a good sized body of the highest legal minds in the land. He was challenging them about one of the important questions of our time: how religious minorities should be treated under the law when their religious beliefs are not convergent with the law of the land.

The problem facing our society could be illustrated in all sorts of ways but perhaps the easiest and most to hand example is the matter of the Roman Catholic Child Adoption Agencies having to consider, under our law, sending children to gay couples. This is against their present religious beliefs. So their religious beliefs are in conflict with what the (English) law requires. It is similar with Muslims - sharia law enables certain matters to be dealt with in a religious context - in a sharia court. The ABC was saying that this problem of religious minorities is a matter that all these legal minds, sitting in front of him, need to grapple with in the coming years as it is a pressing and ever increasing problem. There are 1.6 million members of the Islam Faith in this country at present - in a few years that will double.

So who is objecting to what the ABC said? Well, firstly the tabloids grabbed a sentence or two and placarded them in a way that aroused maximum negative result from their readers.

Then some politicians got in on the act - they went straight for what they knew some of their constituents were afraid of - Britain becoming Muslim! So of course they climbed on the bandwagon.

Naturally various people in the churches - especially those who held contrary views to Rowan Williams joined in. The previous Archbishop - Lord Carey - did the ABC another disservice by saying that he disagreed with the views expressed by the Archbishop and that they would be disastrous. And, of course, some conservative evangelicals rallied to the cause and started calling for the resignation of the ABC.

So what does all of this tell us?

I think it tells us three things above all else:

1 It tells us that there is a residual fear just beneath the surface in the minds of many people in Britain about their relationship with Muslims. This no doubt stems from the acts of those terrorists who were of that faith and who were involved in 9/11 and 7/7. As a legacy, a lot of people have realised that they are more worried about multiculturalism than they knew. The impression about the speech conveyed by the Press inevitably triggered a fearfulness in some people.

2 It also tells us - as if we didn’t already know - that parts of the media are not always calmly rational in their approach to reporting a speech such as the one given by the ABC. I think this event has shown up certain elements of the Press in a bad light.

3 It also shows us that the public discussion resulting from what the ABC said is very necessary and, indeed, has been long overdue. Instead of facing the issue as a nation we have perhaps hidden too long behind the idea that a policy of ‘multiculturalism’ solves whatever problems may exist or arise in the future. The realisation that multiculturalism does no such thing has now dawned on most people and we are all casting around for the next step in the ongoing saga.

So where do we go from here?

First of all let us agree that the idea that this is a resigning issue for the ABC is a nonsense. The word should not be even mentioned - but, if it is, then it should be dismissed as totally inappropriate.

Secondly, we now need to face these issues in the public arena and only honesty will get us through. We all need to recognise the widespread problems and fears that are current so that we can find a way through the next few years. We also need to recognise that there is nothing to fear except fear itself. The vast majority of Muslims in this country are law abiding and good citizens. By openly recognising the problems we can work our way through them.

Thirdly, I think that in due course it should be acknowledged by all those who have rushed too hastily to judgement of the ABC that in him we have a very rare and precious gift - a wise and gentle Christian man of great humility who is capable, if anyone is, of getting us through the next few years in the best possible manner. That does not mean that there will be no schism in the Anglican Communion - that may be inevitable. But if schism can be avoided, with honour, then the present Archbishop is the man to do it.

Tomorrow the ABC addresses Synod and he may well use that occasion to issue some sort of statement to clear up the muddle. Make no mistake - this man is not one to have lightly said something that he now withdraws as a mistake. What he will need to do is speak in utterly clear language the essence of what he was saying to the legal group assembled in the Royal Courts of Justice last week. Then let us hope that serious minds will start to grapple with the real and important issues he has adumbrated. The tabloids are perhaps too seized of their own importance to apologise but maybe most reasonable people will see and understand why this whole matter has escalated as it has. And in the process let us hope that they will also see that a grave injustice has been done to Rowan Williams, however much a greater clarity on his part might have avoided the whole problem. .

Tony Cross

February 2008

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