Monday, 18 February 2008

Rowan Williams misses the point

If you live in Britain, there is virtually no chance that you haven't come across the furore this man, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury has stirred up with some apparently ill-conceived remarks about Sharia law. He argued that Sharia Law ought to be adopted in Britain in 'family matters' (whatever that means). He furthermore suggested that this was inevitable and had indeed already been adopted to some extent in Britain. You can hear the interview that sparked this row here.

Williams seems to be speaking in the spirit of multi-culturalism and cultural relativism. Both translate roughly to the idea that in order to integrate different cultures, you need to treat them differently. This seems like a contradiction to me. The anti-racism movements in America and South Africa were hell-bent on everyone being treated equally under the law, regardless of race. Feminism in Britain, despite its consistently bad press, has always been about equality too, beginning with fundamental rights such as the vote and continuing today with rights for equal pay and status among other things. These movements were emphatically not concerned with establishing different sets of rules for different slices of the community, but instead with changing law so that everybody is treated equally. Compromises may have to be made on both sides, but this is not a zero-sum situation: it is perfectly possible that everyone, with the exception of a few nutjobs, can win in the long term.

Williams seems to be advocating a different view, whereby integration is somehow achieved by further segregating different cultures within a society. I'm not sure I can see how this would work and my possibly naive view suggests it is more likely to have exactly the opposite effect. There are a number of things that seem fundamentally wrong with the idea, including:

  • One rule for one, one for another is simply not fair. It won't be regarded as fair in Britain and this seems likely to lead to conflict
  • There are many things wrong with Sharia Law, especially at the family level. Above all, its principle that women are to be treated as second class citizens: their movements controlled, their freedom to dress curtailed, their rights in marriage negligible and so on.
  • I can't see a way that the interface between different systems of law can be easily managed. This doesn't mean it can't be done, but wouldn't we spend as much time arguing about jurisdiction than in solving problems and helping people to move on?
  • Williams calls for the 'choice' of muslims over whether Sharia or British law should be applied, presumably on a case-by-case basis. The problem is that individual muslims are unlikely to get to decide. Take the case of a woman who has been raped. We all know how Sharia would deal with this situation (or at least, how it is reported). Can we be sure that she would be free to choose British law over Sharia? That she wouldn't be threatened and bullied into accepting Sharia to (pre-)determine her fate?
  • The Jedi Issue: if one religious sect gets its own set of courts, why not every sect? Why not Jedi, as facetious as that might sound? And why does religion once again trump everything? Why can't I dream up my own personal ideology and insist on a set of laws and courts that I can choose to apply to myself?
  • Who gets to decide what is and isn't acceptable? And how is this enforced? Presumably 'honour' beatings would not be allowed, but if they happened anyway, what would be done about it? Presumably the 'community' wouldn't necessarily wish to cooperate with police because as far as some members were concerned, justice had been done and as far as others were concerned, collaboration would have its own punishments. Enshrining parts of Sharia or any other religious or community law within British law seems likely only to increase this problem.
I feel fairly sure that Williams would not be advocating a different system of laws for non-religious communities. The idea that religion doesn't trump everything seems alien to him. This is a very worrying standpoint.

He seems isolated from the concerns of other people and in particular the especially vulnerable. This is my biggest concern with his proposal. British law exists above all to protect the vulnerable, even if it is not always perfectly applied. It applies to everyone equally, so that the especially vulnerable have, in principle, the same rights as everyone else. Making the law hierarchical, with communities dealing with issues locally, would seem to strip some people of these rights purely because of accidents of birth. This seems fundamentally incompatible with the aims and practice of British law. Of course Williams emphasises choice but, as suggested above, how can we be sure that choice will be respected? Won't the practice of Sharia law strengthen the pressure on community members to be dictated to by a bunch of thugs? I don't know. But the moment we decide that perhaps people aren't equal under law afterall, we are sanctioning that possibility.

Quite a lot of people have been calling for Williams to resign over these remarks. I don't understand this witch-hunt mentality. Personally, I don't think any of the remarks he makes have any relevance to things like law or politics: or at least, no more relevance than anyone else's. I don't think he should be forced to resign, just gently mocked and put back into his cupboard until next time. For an excellent example of Rowan Williams being gently mocked, watch this. Don't think that mockery is gentle? Then ask yourself whether you are one of the overly-sensitive bed-wetters Condell is talking about. It's a lot more tame than the sort of abuse politicians are subjected to in, for example, topical quiz shows and satirical cartoons.

But I digress: Sharia law is fundamentally unfair, violent and incompatible with British law. I agree with Pat Condell in that I would not personally be prepared to live under such law and I go further: I am not prepared to allow other people in Britain to be treated in this way either. I don't care what your religion is or what a random bishop says and I worry that the ensuing furore is a distraction from the fact that sympathy is insidiously heading in this direction through the usual, inexplicable banal reason that everyone seems to think religion and the religious are deserving of respect. The vulnerable will suffer.

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