Friday, 8 February 2008

Dr Williams and Sharia: wrong suggestion, right concern

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

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. Fern - location, location, location (please see the comments policy).

  2. richardson - control, control, control. get some therapy.

  3. Dear Poppy, the reason I ask for a location each time someone posts is on the principle that anonymous posting is like anonymous letters to the newspapers. Your own comment, which I have posted because I want to reply to you, is personal and unpleasant. That is your privilege. To make it from behind a shield of (relative) anonymity is your choice. But I don't feel obliged to go along with it your views in this regard.

    In your case, all you have to do is put "Poppy Tupper, Location", just as you would, if you wrote to your local paper. That's all it is about.

    If someone objects, "But I've already given my location in the first post I made," my response would be, "Not everyone who reads comments here may have read the first post you made - you may not be that famous!"

    It is just about openness and honesty in public discourse. Incidentally, Giles Fraser agrees with this viewpoint.

    Do feel free to keep contributing, but please do tell other readers who you are.

  4. I think that RW has shown that the place of religionist opt-out from the law is not one which can be supported - it bodes ill for the continuation of existing optouts given to conservative christians. ts interesting how much hostility there has been to the principle of one law for one, one law for another.

    As I firmly believe in secular public law which private freedom of religion, I am delighted that RW had advanced our aims so fully.

    All I need now is the split in the AC and the CofE creating a liberal CofE and maybe I might even be tempted to go back (once its ditched some of the silliness of outdated conservative religionist myth...)

    Being serious - this is effectively a secular country with a Christian history, and continuing religious 'pockets'. That is no basis for separate jurisdictions of opt outs. I wonder if disestablishment is also growing closer, once the split takes place?

    Mike Homfray
    Liverpool, Capital of Culture

  5. I think a very good response to The Archbishop's lecture by the Bishop of St Albans can be read at:

    Chris Bishop


  6. William Temple writing in 1942 when Archbishop of York in his Christianity and the Social Order said, 'It is of crucial importance that the Church acting corporately should not commit itself to any particular policy'. He goes on to offer 'in my capacity as a Christian citizen, certain proposals which would, in my private judgment, conduce to a more Christian ordering of society,' but observes that the Church would be out of order to endorse as a body any such detailed proposal. (Penguin edition, 1956, pp27-28)

    Perhaps part of the problem with Rowan Williams' position is, first, that he offers a suggestion rather than a detailed proposal which takes account and responds to potential misunderstanding. And second, that the separation of role which Temple assumed possible is today - when leaders are naturally assumed to be speaking with the authority of their office - impossible to maintain.

  7. Well done John. This is a lot more complex matter than any of the hasty reactions allow for.

    My reading of the lecture (and as is usually the case with RW, reading it is a it like doing the Times crossword!), was that he was basically raising the question conscientious objection- what would happen if a Muslim's obedience to Sharia brings them into conflict with the law of the land? As Mike Homfray points out, Christians may themselves find themselves in similar positins, as we believe that in any conflict between human law and God's law "we must obey God not man", which may lead us to choose civil disobedience (why O why won't people listen to Francis Schaeffer?)

    What is scandalous about the lecture and interview is not what RW says, abut Sharia or anything else, but what he doesn't say. There is no attempt to develop a properly biblical, Christian persepective on law. The scriptures are laid aside, and Christ is not mentioned. The lecture could have been given by an atheist with almost no changes.

    RW does recognise the issue that John raises, that law needs to be based on a "higher ideal". He says that:
    I’d add in passing that this is arguably a place where more reflection is needed about the theology of law; if my analysis is right, the sort of foundation I have sketched for a universal principle of legal right requires both a certain valuation of the human as such and a conviction that the human subject is always endowed with some degree of freedom over against any and every actual system of human social life; both of these things are historically rooted in Christian theology, even when they have acquired a life of their own in isolation from that theology. It never does any harm to be reminded that without certain themes consistently and strongly emphasised by the ‘Abrahamic’ faiths, themes to do with the unconditional possibility for every human subject to live in conscious relation with God and in free and constructive collaboration with others, there is no guarantee that a ‘universalist’ account of human dignity would ever have seemed plausible or even emerged with clarity". Even here though he quickly switches from Christianity to the "Abrahamic religions" (and does Islam really acknowledge "unconditional possibility for every human subject to live in conscious relation with God"?) At the very end he says that:
    "theology still waits for us around the corner of these debates, however hard our culture may try to keep it out. And, as you can imagine, I am not going to complain about that". But surely his job is to bring it around the corner into full view- otherwise, what are theologians for? To take only one example, the Reformation political theory of the "2 kingdoms" is surely a fruitful way of approaching the problems he raises. But John knows more about that than me, so I'll leave it to him!

    Stephen Walton, Marbury, Cheshire

  8. Stephen Walton is right: there is a long and highly articulated tradition of reflection on the status of Christians in the world, with Augustine's 'City of God' one of the earliest and profoundest.
    Coincidentally in time, here's the first part of a Channel 4 programme on Christians in Egypt under sharia:

    Mark Beaton

  9. If Ken livingstone thinks we can do as we please without hurting others. Does that mean we can drive safely in central London without paying a congestion charge?

  10. Darren, I'm assuming you're the Tranmere Darren - and no, sadly, you can't drive in London without paying the congestion charge because, as Ken says, the one controlling 'truth' is you must obey the law - laid down by him in this case.