Before Thursday’s brouhaha about sharia law erupted, I had already intended to read Rowan Williams’ earlier speech about religious hatred laws, following on from the praise that Chris Keating garlanded it with on Monday. I’m afraid I don’t share Chris’ enthusiasm.
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Academic background or not, Rowan Williams is a politician. He is the leader of a worldwide movement which is happy to roll its sleeves up and get involved in political matters on a daily basis. He is a member of the UK’s legislative assembly. So when he says something, it matters. And when he makes a speech about religious hatred laws, at the very least he must acknowledge the role in which he and his political party (in this case, the Bishops) personally played in getting those laws onto the statute books. In particular, it should be remembered that the neutered piece of legislation we have now is not the draconian measure that the Church of England actively campaigned for and which we would now have were it not for the ineptitude of Hilary Armstrong, the anti-Parliamentary instincts of Tony Blair and arguably the intervention of another Rowan. For Williams, two years later, to make a speech justifying an Act of Parliament he didn’t actually want in its final form is utterly shameless.
In terms of his speech on religious hatred (which is equally as long but in fairness not quite as oblique as his speech on sharia), it can essentially be summed up by two statements:
The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.
It can reasonably be argued that a powerful or dominant religious body has every chance of putting its own case, and that one might take with a pinch of salt any claim that it was being silenced by public criticism; but the sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grates on the ear. Context is all.
These two principles are designed to guarantee what Williams refers to, both here and in other speeches as ‘argumentative democracy’ – the idea of the public realm being a marketplace of ideas where people can freely argue without fear of being shot down, moderated by restraint.
Superficially this all sounds fine. The powerful must not be allowed to drown out the powerless. The problem is, it is so subjective and his definition of ‘power’ is at best undefined, at worst to be taken to refer merely to the power of the state. It certainly is when he offers his critique of the Enlightenment – there we are asked to put it in the context of a few brave intellectuals standing up against an over-powerful church which influenced every part of public life. No supra-powerful church these days (thanks to the Enlightenment), ergo no real need to continue the Enlightenment project. Their work is done, time to move on, is essentially Williams’ argument.
But the power of the state is just one tool. There is the power of big money, something which religion continues to use around the world, from Saudi Arabia through to the US Presidential elections through to the bankrolling of UK Academies. There is also the power of violence.
Williams does not reflect on this and without wishing to sound like a neo-con this is pretty unforgiveable in the post-9/11 world where the asymmetry of conflict is now well understood (at least outside of Lambeth Palace). You don’t need to be a super-power to change the world these days, just enough people who are willing to die for your cause.
In a global world, does anyone have a legitimate claim to be a Goliath-fighting David? The brilliant film In the Valley of Elah explores this theme in the context of the Iraq conflict, showing how that metaphor can be applied and reapplied in different contexts. It’s an evocative image, and one which our global culture is in love with (from The 300 and the Seven Samurai through to Dad’s Army), but I would suggest in a world where everyone is both David and Goliath it isn’t a particularly useful foundation for law.
Ultimately, any such narrative is intensely political. Eurosceptics like to emphasise about how they are plucky Brits standing up against the immensely powerful monolithic Brussels. Nationalists, be they English, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish or Russian, flatter themselves that They have Us under their yoke. And of course it has now become a Christian tradition, each December, for people of faith to claim their celebration of Christmas is under attack from sinister secular forces.
The latter point is particularly relevant because of course Charles Sentamu, who is fond of denouncing the evils of ‘aggressive secularism‘, is the Ying to Rowan Williams’ Yang. Sentamu’s allegations are explicitly intended to limit atheist’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life – not only are his allegations about Winterval et al without foundation and highly inflammatory but he is lecturing people what they can or can’t have on their Christmas cards. Where does this fit in Williams’ picture of things? Ostensibly nowhere – the irreligious are not to have any of the rights he insists the religious should have. And if we are to believe the rest of his speech, the Church is no longer a powerful entity, at least compared to the aggressive secularist hegemony (which in reality has as much substance to it as the Elders of Zion). To not even begin to grapple with this issue, in a six thousand word essay, when his second-in-command is going around making such blood libels willy-nilly, is sinister indeed.
Williams mentions the Behtzi case, but laughably tries to have it every which way:
In the case of the bitter controversy in the Sikh community over the play Behzti in 2004, it was clear that many deeply intelligent members of the Sikh community in Britain were torn between the belief that the play would cement in the minds of audiences largely ignorant of the Sikh religion a distorting and negative set of images and the gloomy conviction that violent protest against the play would have exactly the same effect (c.f. Nash, pp. 34-6): very much a no-win situation. Once again, there is the disconnection between the firm claim of an artistic establishment that protest against oppressive systems is justifiable, even imperative (and Behzti had identified a real and too-often buried concern among Sikh women), and the counter-claim that this kind of representation of a religious culture in front of what was likely to be a fairly religiously illiterate audience would be experienced as a straightforward flexing of the muscles by a hostile, alien and resourceful power.
Or, to put it another way: Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was making valid criticisms but the hoi polloi is too stupid and ignorant to fully appreciate her argument. Therefore, on balance, her play should not have been performed.
This gets to the heart of it. Far from approving of an ‘argumentative democracy’ Williams wants to insulate the public from any argument it may not be able to fully appreciate the nuances of. The Ivory Tower of academia can have these debates but the rest of us must have it doled out in strictly vetted, bite-sized chunks. Given the events of the past 48 hours, I do hope the irony isn’t lost on anyone here. Given the enormous backlash that Williams’ speech has caused, and given his call a week earlier for people to exercise restraint, could he not be accused himself of knowingly “damaging believers’ freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society” and thus be restrained in order to “avoid the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded”? Or should such restraints only apply to anyone who happens to disagree with him? In reseaching his article I am reminded that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 would have made it an offence to stir up religious hatred if you were “reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up” if Williams’ had had his way: in a parallel universe his counterpart is currently sitting in a police cell.
Ultimately, we can’t agree who is powerful or weak any more than we can agree what is a valid criticism or not. In a global, information rich society, ideas about the powerful versus the weak are losing resonance in any case. The self-assured righteousness which religion imbues in its adherents and all too often descends into violence must be regarded as a powerful thing in itself – it doesn’t need the power of the state it had in medieval times to still cause oppression.