Does Rowan Williams have any more idea of what he’s going on about than I do?

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.

I’ve listened to his WATO interview and I’ve skimmed through his speech (pdf). I’m still struggling to get my head around what exactly he’s going on about.

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.


  1. At least, James, you have taken trouble to think about it (and to study what the Archbishop said) before commenting – which is more than can said for Nick Clegg, whose rush to join the knee-jerk reactions condemning the Archbishop was deeply, deeply disappointing. Clegg was saying that equality before law is absolutely essential – which is a bit rich coming from an MP just at the moment!

  2. Robin,

    Nick Clegg’s response was moderate and respectful and a whole lot less knee jerk than making some vague, ill informed attack on MPs just because of a few individuals who take the piss.

  3. Excuse me James, but this is not simply a matter of MPs who “take the piss”. MPs have special privileges which extend, we have just learned, not only to the right to put fish tanks on their expenses, to be deemed unprosecutable when in clear breach of rules they have themselves made, and to be supposedly guaranteed privacies which would not be extended to ordinary citizens.
    Some of parliamentary privilege is obviously justifiable – some questionable – and some objectionable or even unacceptable.
    Similarly, just as you plead for some understanding of the position of the (we hope) majority of MPs who are decen t and honourable, might British Muslims not appreciate a little consideration and respect for their religion and special situation (which I do not share).
    Islamic Sharia Councils are not some startling new demand. They have existed in Britain since the early 1980s and have been informally helpful in resolving disputes in family law and some spects of commercial and criminal law too.
    Plenty of people have their own judicial or quasi-judical authorities. Everbody at present seems to be quoting Orthodox Jewry’s Beth Din as closest parallel, but I think one might also refer to the Church of England’s own ecclesiastical and consistory courts, to the General Medical Council, professional regulatory bodies such as the Adevrtising Standards Authority etc etc. Even this morning our sports authorities seemed to be claiming some special right to adjudicate who could or could not reprsent UK at the Olympics.
    I live in Camden. About 16 per cent of our borough population is Muslim. We have one Muslim Lib Dem councillor, who has been working hard to try to prove to his co-religionists that they will get better understanding and support and a more sympathetic audience with the Lib Dems than with other political parties. Do you think Nick Clegg’s response is going to be helpful to him? I don’t. I know Clegg deeply disappointed me. I know also that he has deeply disappointed a lot of devout but far from extremist Muslims who looked for better from him.

  4. I’m trying to think of a response that can improve on “tough titty”. I can’t.

    To quote Clegg:

    Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another. There is a huge difference between respecting people’s right to follow their own beliefs and allowing them to excuse themselves from the rule of law.

    Both I and Nick Clegg support their right to equality before the law. Neither I nor Nick Clegg have stated an opposition to the idea of opening up civil law, subject to human rights and certain practicalities. What we both assert, and what Williams messily waffles about (one paragraph supporting, the next paragraph opposing) is the importance of the rule of law itself.

    If respecting the rule of law is fundamentally contrary to the viability of sharia courts, then it is sharia courts that will have to be the losers. I don’t hold that extreme view, in fact I’ve said the opposite, but clearly you feel it is as black and white as that.

  5. In our round condemnation of the content of Dr Williams lecture it strikes me that there is more going on here than the vast swathe of the commentariat are grasping.

    We could say that he is simply wrong, which would be to miss the point as we roundly agree that he is well intentioned, or we can point out that his good intentions have been so badly put across that it smacks of a naive political sensibility to have failed to recognise the furore that would inevitably be sparked by his comments.

    I cannot convince myself that a man in his position, who used the full power of his office to promote the Westminster Hall lecture through the state licensed media corporation was acting of his sole volition. I do not believe any ‘lone gunman’ theory that he contrived his argument in solitude in the private sanctuary of his palatial offices, then hand-picked and invited the thousand-or-so guests out of some sort of personal mission. At the very least he would have discussed his intentions with his inner circle of advisors and recieved some secretarial assistance in order to set this thing up.

    No, the Archbish is responding to a political challenge of our society and contributing to the cultural and legal debate in a way prescribed by his role. The established Church of England has pressed the buttons of its own and its opposing constituency and acted consciously as a tool of state.

    If a majority of the population disagrees with the content, manner or tone of the contribution then it highlights two significant facts, namely: 1)the politicisation of a nominally secular branch of the state 2)how out of touch the establishment is from social reality.

    I think we must ask why he chose to play this card and why now. The machiavellian in me cannot escape the pretence that the levers of power are being manipulated in some way or form, so we must look at who is the puppetmaster in this shadow game – who has their hands on these levers of power?

    In coincidental contrast, and by way of analogy, a similar furore has broken out among football fans over the floated idea by the FA to play some league matches abroad. Some top figures in the game have tentatively responded with a dead bat to the idea from Richard Scudamore that the idea was inevitable and desirable, while the longest tenured of all has criticised the lack of consultation involved. The fans have resoundingly condemned the proposal on a variety of grounds. (is this starting to have a familiar ring to it yet?) The result of which has been a decisive intervention from our PM, to widespread popular approval as a voice of reason, that the fans concerns should be taken into consideration.

    I could ask what Gordon Brown is doing with his time to be so quick off the ball on what is in effect a side-issue to the main topics of the day, especially in comparison to the Williams controversy, but in a week when policy kite-flying has been all the rage, my suspicions have been roused to consider there is some sort of a trend here, which only a true master of the game would be able to disassociate his personal fortune from involvement in, in order to cash in on.

    The proof of a trend will come to light in the more serious debate re: Shari’a law if Brown responds in a similarly and sufficiently considered manner, at the appropriate moment to create a second wave of publicity positioning himself as the ‘voice of reason’. It is striking that these two areas correspond so closely to what we know of Gordon Brown’s personality.

    Whether either Rowan Williams or Richard Scudamore’s ideas actually come to pass is irrelevant to the stir caused from which it is “inevitable” that a figure will rise. If it is that the initiator ultimately sees this benefit and thereby shows his leadership calibre, who should question how “desirable” this example of classical political machination is for all of the rest of us.

  6. It has been widely reported that according to a statement on his website his principal aim was “to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state” and that he did not initiate the idea but simply agreed when that proposition was put to him.

    Does this give the game away?

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