Behind the headlines, such as that in the Times, declaiming that the “Archbishop of Canterbury argues for Islamic law in Britain” there lies, as one might expect where Rowan Williams is concerned, a much more complex and nuanced position.
In an interview with the BBC, Dr Williams did indeed say that “there is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law.” In this sense, he agreed with the interviewer that “Sharia should have its place.”
But the nature of that accommodation, in Dr Williams’s view, does not seem at all to consist of simply handing over some citizens, or some areas, to Islamic jurisdiction. Rather, the suggestion arises from an attempt, elaborated in a lecture on ‘Civil and Religious Law in England’, to understand the nature of modern society and, within it, the role of law.
Dr Williams’s understanding seems to be this: it is widely assumed (as he stated on the radio) that “the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody.” However, as he points out, many people “have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society.” And it is this which the law needs to take into account.
The idea of there being a ‘legal monopoly’ — whether secular or religious — is a danger to humans both as individuals and in society. Thus, “an approach to law which simply said, ‘There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts’” is (he says with typical understatement), “a bit of a danger.”
The suggestion of an ‘accommodation’ with Sharia, therefore, is actually an attempt to preserve fundamental human freedom by denying the ‘monopoly’ which would otherwise marginalise religious faith as finally irrelevant.
Far from undermining British society, the Archbishop is thus attempting to preserve it — albeit in a way which most Britons will find almost incomprehensible.
Yet, oddly enough, his ideas parallel those recently expressed by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in a recent conference titled ‘A World Civilisation or a Clash of Civilisations?’ Much of the programme was given over precisely to questions of religious freedom in modern society and to a consideration of the place of Islam in particular.
In his speech to the conference, Ken Livingstone declared that the principles guiding his vision for London were those laid down centuries earlier by John Stuart Mill:
It actually is a very good guide on how we should conduct ourselves and organise ourselves within nations and between nations. It was basically that you should live your life as you choose to do so as long as you do not harm others.
This he contrasted with “the classic conservative prescription that there has to be a requirement for a common ideology, in whatever form that takes”. As can be seen, this seems very close to the concept of a ‘legal monopoly’ to which Dr Williams also objected. However, in his own speech, Ken Livingstone associated this “conservative and authoritarian” outlook with a religious world view. By contrast, he continued,
What we are really saying is that you don’t have to be Christian, you don’t have to be Muslim, you don’t have to be a monarchist or a republican, you don’t have to be British or you don’t have to be French, as long as you leave others to lead their life as they choose.
Only one requirement binds all together, according to Ken Livingstone:
As long as you obey the law you should be free to live your life as you choose.
But here, we see that his own prescription collides with that of the Archbishop, and we also begin to see why the Archbishop’s prescription is so problematic. What Ken Livingstone and the Archbishop are both saying is that the individual ought to be allowed to live by considerations which rise above ‘common identity’. For Ken Livingstone, there is no ‘common identity’ apart from that of being a ‘global citizen’:
I believe that the sort of world that is emerging ... is one in which people have the choice to select for themselves what they find attractive in all cultures and therefore, rather than a clash of cultures and civilisations, I think we are at the beginning of a genuine global civilisation emerging.
Similarly, Dr Williams reminds us that he has called for an “interactive pluralism”, suggesting that,
... what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty [...].
Yet both Ken Livingstone and Dr Williams fall foul of the same necessary aspect of their visions: someone must decide the overall ‘rules of the game’. Ken Livingstone advocates freedom, “as long as you obey the law.” Dr Williams advocates accommodation to religious arbitration so long as this does not “actually deprive members of the minority community of rights and liberties” they enjoy as citizens of the over-arching secular society.
And this is why what Dr Williams proposes is impossible, for whilst, as he argues, Sharia may be conceived of as a process of decision-making rather than as a fixed set of regulations, fundamental to the process is the assumption (as he recognizes) that society stands under divine rule and that there should be no man-made laws. Thus, to ‘allow’ Sharia to operate under a man-made convention is to deny Sharia itself.
Yet Dr Williams has surely raised an important point. For the dominant view which he fears, that of the ‘legal monopoly’ which includes “the ‘monopoly of legitimate violence'’ by the law of a state”, is precisely that articulated by Ken Livingstone. Despite the latter’s advocacy of personal choice from a global smorgasbord of culture and civilizations, the exercise of those choices will ultimately be determined not by whether or not they harm others, but by what the law allows. And it is quite clear that, in Ken Livingstone’s Brave New World the law will not be allowed to be made by Christians or Muslims, and therefore will have to be made by someone else — someone, it turns out, very much like Ken Livingstone.
And this is why, despite the tendency to write off what Dr Williams has said, we need to listen to the questions he has raised. The fact is that we have to live in a society governed, to some extent, by law. Until recently in this country, and still in many parts of the world, the law has had some foundation in a ‘higher ideal’ — and certainly one much higher and more coherent than ‘it doesn’t matter what you do so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.’
Ultimately, Sharia is no different from Ken Livingstone’s utilitarian secularism, in that it claims to be an over-arching system for governing, in the best possible way, the lives and interactions of human beings. Similarly, multiculturalism as a doctrine is a contradiction in terms because it seeks to determine that we all live under the ‘rule’ of there being no dominant culture — except that of multiculturalism.
Dr Williams is right to be concerned that the legal monopolies which result from all such over-arching views are fraught with danger. He is wrong in his prescription for a solution. But this should impel us to do better.
Revd John P Richardson
8 February 2008
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