• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Hiding behind the veil of Sharia law

The media appears to have ‘done a Gordon Brown’ on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. Both Brown and now Dr Williams have been boosted by the media-invented notion that they are men of unusual cerebral abilities whose thoughts and pronouncements are so subtle and sophisticated that they are inevitably misunderstood by their intellectual inferiors. Brown has been awarded an unearned ‘substance’ bonus by the media; he is frequently referred to as a man of substance whose real ‘communication problem’ is that his complex ideas are not easily translated into the language of everyday life. And now some are talking about Dr Williams as an intelligent, thoughtful man misunderstood or misrepresented in the vulgar media and in mass public opinion.

Since his speech last week, in which he seemed to suggest that introducing aspects of Sharia law into the UK was inevitable, the Archbishop of Canterbury has been at the centre of a political storm. Yet while he has been denounced as a ‘burka’ by some of the tabloids, he has also been awarded the ‘unusually brilliant and clever’ award by other sections of the media. Even his opponents concede that Dr Williams is a theological giant whose highly intellectual insights have got him into trouble. The criticism of his ‘intellectual arrogance’ conveys the idea that this is man of formidable powers whose main defect is that he is out of touch with the world. Others offer the very charitable interpretation that Dr Williams simply does not understand the flawed mental outlook of his immensely prejudiced and intolerant flock. They blame his advisers for not warning him of the dangers of being so ‘ahead of the public’ and leaving him unguarded against the frenzied response of low-life tabloid journalists.

Dr Williams has also been portrayed as a man possessed of an unusually sensitive liberal temper whose musings on Sharia law were symptomatic of his deep desire to build a civilised and tolerant society. From this viewpoint, the Archbishop’s remarks have clearly been distorted or taken out of context. At the very least, many argue, he has been ‘misunderstood’. For those who believe that unless culture is ‘multi’ then it must be prejudiced and malevolent, the hostile reaction to the Archbishop’s comments only demonstrates the prescience of his arguments.

So what is the significance of the holy row that erupted out of Dr Williams’ speech? There is little doubt that his speech has been taken out of context. He did not advocate the adoption of Sharia law in Britain, nor did he call for the institutionalisation of a system of Islamic justice. And yes, his words were somewhat confusing and open to misinterpretation. But the misinterpretation of his words was not some unintended consequence of the speech; rather, Williams’ speech seemed self-consciously designed to raise controversial issues and place the Archbishop at the centre of public debate. Moreover, Williams did not simply call for a little bit more tolerance and understanding of Muslims’ religious and cultural sensibilities. He basically argued that in a world of divided cultural, religious and ethnic loyalties, the exercise of the rule of law in Britain needs be adjusted and its authority may need to be modified. His argument that the adoption of certain features of Sharia law ‘seems unavoidable’ summed up his overall prognosis: that the influence of a single, national law created by Parliament and judges will become increasingly circumscribed and limited in some parts of the country.

The most significant point in Dr Williams’ speech was on the question of the individual citizen’s loyalty to secular institutions. He said Britain had to ‘face up to the fact’ that some of its citizens were alienated from the British legal system. And he warned that Muslims should not have to choose between the ‘stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty’. Even if he did not call for the establishment of parallel jurisdictions, Dr Williams did put forward a view of the world that calls into question the logical priority of national authority over cultural loyalties. From this perspective, the rule of law and the exercise of authority are potentially negotiable when confronted by diverse cultural commitments.

That is why, when he later tried to clarify his misunderstood statement, Dr Williams argued that it was a ‘bit of a danger’ to ‘simply’ say ‘there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the court’. Of course, from the point of view of due process and the exercise of democratic decision-making, what is truly dangerous is this desire to introduce caveats and qualifications to the old, established idea that there is ‘one law for everybody’. In an enlightened society, the legal system – while sensitive to people’s personal customs and beliefs – upholds the universal rule of law. Dr Williams is proposing an approach that compromises this universality; such a move would have the regrettable consequence of undermining the foundation of future solidarity in British society.

Yet what is truly significant about the Archbishop’s statement is not his apparently liberal tilt towards respecting the customs of a competing faith. Although the focus of Williams’ speech was on the place of Sharia law in Britain, its main purpose was to argue for the re-legitimation of the role of religion in British society. As head of the Anglican Church, Dr Williams is painfully aware of the diminishing significance and influence of his institution. In Britain, there are now more Christians practising Catholicism than Anglicanism. Islam appears to motivate and inspire people in ways that many ordinary Anglicans find difficult to comprehend. The Church of England is haunted by dissension over sexual and lifestyle issues and continually struggles to uphold its international authority over the world’s 77million Anglicans.

The Anglican Church faces a crisis of authority. It finds it difficult to assert its role as the ‘established church’. And instead of looking within itself and asking probing questions about its own meaning and purpose, it prefers to blame the onward march of materialistic secularist culture for its institutional demise. Sometimes it presents itself as a beleaguered minority faith victimised by a cruel secular crusade. Some Anglicans have joined with their Catholic colleagues to decry the attempts by anti-religious forces to ban Christmas and other religious customs. Dr Williams’ speech was only the latest attempt to win more space for the exercise of religious authority in Britain. But instead of asking for greater recognition of Anglican sensibilities, Williams instead chose to put the case for the exercise of ‘religious conscience’ through demanding greater recognition of Sharia law.

This is what he meant when he said that ‘there’s a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law’. In other words, he is not simply demanding more recognition for Sharia but for all forms of religious law. He may well be motivated by a genuine desire to promote tolerance for Islam – but he is far more concerned with maintaining and, if possible, enhancing the status of religion more broadly in a secular society. That he has sought to realise this aim by piggybacking on the forward movement of a competing religion is symptomatic of the malaise afflicting his church. Far from being a courageous statement, Williams’ speech hides behind Sharia law and fails to spell out its real agenda. Motivated by institutional uncertainty and afraid to reveal its real agenda out loud… is it any wonder that the Archbishop’s was so open to ‘misinterpretation’?

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terrorism: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown has just been published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi looked at many religious leaders preferred to talk about saving the planet, not saving souls. Munira Mirza wrote that ‘homegrown’ terrorism is shaped by Western self-loathing not religious sects. Mick Hume suggested we end this Muslim-mania. Or see spiked-issue, Religion.

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.