The Archbishop’s storm in a teacup

The Archbishop of Canterbury has caused a lot of trouble by saying something sensible.  Meanwhile, the British press (even the BBC) is acting like its normal hysterical tabloid self and turning it into an even bigger storm in a teacup.  Let’s recap.  Rowan Williams commented,

Dr Williams told BBC Radio 4 on Thursday that he believed the adoption of some Sharia law in the UK seemed “unavoidable”.’

And the crazy people started yelling.  Oh yes, and don’t forget that Sharia law is ALREADY allowed as a dispute resolution mechanism outside the normal courts here in the UK:

Under English law, people may devise their own way to settle a dispute in front of an agreed third party as long as both sides agree to the process.

Muslim Sharia courts and Orthodox Jewish courts which already exist in the UK come into this category.’

So why is everyone up in arms?  Why?  Hello???  A few sensible comments have been uttered:

‘Catholic leader Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said he was “saddened” by the way the archbishop had been misunderstood.

“I think he did raise a point of considerable interest and concern at the moment, namely, the rights of a religious groups within secular state.

“Everyone in Britain must obey the law and therefore the question of how one can be a loyal British citizen and a faithful member of a religious group is a very pertinent question,”‘

But for the most part, most of what is going on here is absolute nonsense.  There are calls for him to resign, statement that he has lost the world’s faith in the Anglican church, etc.  Of course, there was this gem of a quote in the BBC article, from a Lord Carey:

“There can be no exceptions to the laws of our land which have been so painfully honed by the struggle for democracy and human rights.’

That I loved.  Living in the UK as an expat, you are a second class citizen in many ways.  The government is adding to the burden, with things like required registration/ID cards for foreigners, and there’s always my favorite “must ask the home office for permission to marry” bit.  So I’m not sure I’d go with the “finely honed democracy and civil rights” part of that, I think this is where xenophobic Britain has a lot of work to do.  And of course I’m white and American, with a good job and so my experiences here are only the tip of the iceburg compared with what many other immigrants and visitors must face.

Regardless, I urge the British press to stop the fear-mongering, I urge “respected church leaders” to stop yammering about this one.  Sharia law is already here, it is finding a niche within British civil law, and Dr Williams was being quite sensible in noting this and wondering whether it would someday have an expanded role.

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8 responses to “The Archbishop’s storm in a teacup

  1. The key flaw in Dr Williams’s super-liberal and highly nuanced argument, made with an academic flair for obscurity in language and hence open to misunderstanding etc, is to assume that some pick and mix will be possible from Sharia. Sharia is a whole Chinese menu of laws and the laws govern the entire life of Muslims. A pick and mix is not something any respectable Ulema will accept, once the ‘negotiations’ begin.

    Unlike the Jewish courts whose arbitrations are recognised by British courts, but who do not try to arbitrate in matters of penal law, the Sharia penal code is not only non-negotiable but also rather harsh, particularly on women. Being stoned for adultery, being lashed for being raped (yes, read that again if you have to) and having hands chopped off for theft are some of the non-negotiable delights on offer.

    Interestingly the latter bit about women’s rights was my understanding – India, my native country, has allowed Muslim personal laws to co-exist with a civil code and the result is an unholy mess of women suffering polygamy, triple-talaq (instant divorce by a man uttering the word talaq thrice) and so on – but it is also the opinion of a leading Muslim academic in Cambridge, Sheikh Mumisa. (The bright thing about finding Mumisa is that I now know Cambridge has a black academic!). Mumisa is also bold enough to say that all interpretations of the law are made by male clerics and disadvantage women and poor people.

    The comparison with the Jewish courts is also not apt for another reason. The Jewish people are mainstream in the UK, although their numbers are much smaller. They have integrated well into society (considering many came here as refugees etc) and score very well on many socio-economic metrics such as education, health etc. The Muslim community is alienated mainly because of lack of education which leads to poor health and economic outcomes. We do not need extra efforts to keep them alienated and to accelerate that alienation.

    I know you do not like this country but do be fair sometimes? As for taking permission to marry: you probably do not know how many hoops non-Americans have to jump if they happen to be marrying an American citizen or Green card holder. I have known friends who have waited for 2-3 years for a visa. A 68 year old British male friend, who has been married to an American woman, currently working in California, for over 20 years, applied for his green card finally. He has been told not to visit the US till his paper work is complete. So he has been here since August unable to visit his wife – who, thanks to meagre American vacation time, cannot visit him very often either.

    Once the person gets there, the laws preventing mainstream participation such as at work are draconian. Until the government can be sure that you are married for good! As if!

    I must say one thing though. You must be going native. For British people, any occasion is an occasion to bash the weather, the government, anything else they can bash. On your blog, it seems anytime is a good time to bash Britain. 🙂

  2. I really appreciate your comments about the differences between Sharia and Jewish law in this instance.

    However, I don’t think I bash Britain as much as you accuse me of; much of what I say is certainly meant to be tongue in cheek. If anything, this time it was the press that irritated me with their escalation of the comments–essentially not letting the thing die, including their encouraging the series of commenters (mostly of the Anglican/religious and political sort) who clearly thought they needed to toss around their own two pence worth of thoughts on the subject.

  3. @ NFAH: Thanks.

    It is your blog, you can write what you like. I was pulling your leg (hence the smiley) 🙂

    PS: They are probably right to ask him to resign. His statements may be a bit too liberal for the liking of his flock (and too nuanced for the rest of the world). Besides the CEO of, say, Coke, can hardly say that some Pepsi bottles in our cooler are unavoidable! Even if the CEO has the power to alter the mix when the cooler leaves the facilities (tenuous analogy – but he does sit in the House of Lords!). And this is not his first boo-boo either. When one holds a certain job, one has to refrain to airing some of one’s views, some of the time. That is realpolitik of life. If he does not understand this, then there is a bigger problem than what meets the eye.

  4. Corrigendum: refrain from.. Thanks.

  5. You got me, I’m hyper-sensitive about being called overly negative about my British existence. I am actually remarkably happy at the moment and making great progress with the things that had caused me such ire earlier in the year, but I still find certain things here utterly ridiculous. And I don’t deny at all that America is equally ridiculous either to a foreigner or to a native. Governments trying to manage tens to hundreds of millions of people will do silly and stupid things.

    I’m not sure I agree about the calls for resignation. What is the role of a church figurehead if not to raise the key issues of our times? I would hate to have the Archbishop of Canterbury be a yes-man, that is definitely not in my vision of what a leader is/does. There’s also a difference between what Dr Williams says in an interview and what he puts forward as the official position statement of the church. I’m very much against the idea that one has to be acting in an official capacity at all times; he just needs one of those disclaimer statements that the Americans love at the end of their emails: “The statements made by this Archbishop represent his learned opinions only and are not the official position of the Church of England nor of the British State.”

  6. NFAH: I doubt very much that he would get invited around to give his opinions on all sorts of matters if it weren’t for his job. A bit like how Cherie Blair was giving talks for 30K a pop by being Mrs Blair; she may not be making that much going as Cherie Booth, QC. In other words, when the job enables a person to participate in some forums, he/ she owes it to stick to the expectations of the job. Which also applies to my Coke/ Pepsi example earlier. If someone does not like it, well there are many who will happily do the job.

    He does not have to be a yes-man and yes, he should raise issues. But to be clueless, even apparently uncaring about the dominant feelings of the establishment he presides over, just so he could expound on his own hypothesis in public, is to demonstrate not being fit for the job.

    Since it is religion, perhaps we can be blase, but if this were any other responsible CEO, (s)he would have had hell to pay too. In some cases, with his/ her job.

  7. This is one of those things that can get overblown by sound bites. Fortunately, there are a few sensible folks like UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh who actually read the speech and think about it in total context, as her explains here: http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2008_02_03-2008_02_09.shtml#1202446904

    The essential point is that under the law of contract, private parties can agree to any set of rules they desire for disputes resolution. The key is to ensure that there is no coercion to agree to a particular set of rules (and that could be a huge problem here, the devil truly is in the details) and that no set of rules impinges on the constitutional and legal structures that the state controls.

    For example, rules about marriage and some family life issues can be handled under alternate procedures, but the law of the land has to pre-empt where there is a disagreement- no underage arranged marriages, no honor killings if someone refuses to go along, no subjugation of womens’ rights, and so on.

    I think the outcry is because there are active encroachments already on freedom of speech (think Rushdie, cartoons, etc.), freedom to marry, freedom of attire, and the like in many areas of the Melanie Phillips-described world of Londonistan. The state has to get a hold of that and actually enforce the state rules where they differ. Thus far, people are seeing that the multi-culti-enthusiast pusillanimous politicians such as Ken Livingstone do not inspire a lot of confidence. Williams’ words in the administrative hand of Iain Dale would calm the roiling verbal waters considerably.

  8. Pingback: Hotdish « Not From Around Here

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