It isn’t every day that a single line blog post elicits quite so many responses – clearly Rowan Williams has touched on a raw nerve.
On the one hand, much of what he’s saying seems to be what we have already. Civil law is a fairly flexible beast and contains within it the scope for individuals dealing with it however they might like. Where there are restrictions to that, there is certainly a scope for reviewing it. Personally I’m delighted that we have regulated for Islamic mortgages for example – extending choice is a fundamental good thing.
There is no particular conflict between religion and a secular society in this narrow context, but what applies to religions must also apply to the rest of us. You cannot simultaneously say what Williams appears to be saying here on the one hand while taking a moral position on what the UK law on marriage, civil partnership or adoption should be. So long as people of faith are not being required to get married to people of the same sex, it should be none of their business at all what anyone else gets up to. The claim that same sex partnerships “undermine the institution of marriage” should, under Williams’ argument here, be utterly irrelevant.
Sadly though it appears that he must have it both ways, appearing to not only argue for exceptionalism, but refuting the value of the enlightenment project itself. He seems only interested in religious people having this flexibility and appears to attack the notion that it should be a universal right on the grounds that that would be a “legal monopoly” – the right is reserved only to people with their own quasi-legal (religious) framework. Any attempt to talk about universalism in the context of a single rule of law for all is denounced as positivism.
Yet he seems to lack the courage of his own convictions, waffling on about apostacy to the point of absurdity and essentially accepting that you couldn’t have sharia apply here. He seems to want Muslims to have the flexibility to pick and choose between sharia and the country’s legal system; my reading of that is that they wouldn’t be bound by either.
What I find completely baffling is this strange switching between on the one hand rejecting out of hand of us having a set of universal legal principles on the basis that it can get in the way of what he regards as the “good” aspects of sharia while on the other hand wanting to avoid a situation where all the “bad” caricature of sharia – stoning, limb removal, denial of basic rights to women – can be wafted away. How can we judge what’s good or bad without a set of universal principles? The conflict, some would say straw man, he subsequently creates he then declares can only apparently be resolved through theology. Oh, how convenient!
For the most part though, I’m just confused, which you can probably tell. I think its going to take me quite some time before I’ve got my head properly around what he’s talking about at all.
As I’ve said before I think there is some capacity in a liberal, secular society for allowing individuals to resolve private issues between them using whatever process they feel appropriate. But that only reinforces the need for a set of fundamental rights that everyone is entitled to in order to prevent abuse. Putting all this emphasis on an essential withdrawal from the public sphere also renders the Church of England’s current constitutional position untenable: we cannot have Bishops sitting in our legislature setting our laws while simultaneously demanding their right to pick and choose them whenever it suits.
UPDATE: I can’t really improve on Andrew Brown:
Dr Williams, characteristically, is interested in the arguments over what sharia law actually says. The rest of the country is more interested in whether and how it might be enforced. Only if Islamic law can be reduced to a game played between consenting adults can it be acceptably enforced in this country; and that’s not, I think, how it is understood by its practitioners.