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Friday, February 08, 2008 

Bearded extremist must die! (or resign, whichever comes first)

(Slight warning: this post clocks in at just less than 2,000 words, excluding the large amounts of quoted text.)

I'll admit: I was hasty and went slightly over the top in the post I made yesterday on Rowan Williams' speech on the possibility of Sharia law being legally recognised by the state. I actually rather like Beardie; he's probably the closest that any religion will get to having an acceptable, kind and intellectual face. I'm also more than happy to make clear that I already favour the disestablishment of the Church of England. It's surely ridiculous in this day and age that the prime minister chooses the head of the "state religion"; even the Catholic Church's college of cardinals vote for the supposed messenger of God on earth.

Let's make no bones about it though: he is first and foremost not just a speaker for the CoE, but also for religion as a whole, or he at least thinks he is. Like when the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks a few years ago dared to suggest that there was a a degree of truth in all three of the main Abrahamic religions and found himself being lambasted by conservative Jews for not making clear that Judaism is the only true faith, despite them all worshipping what is to all intents and purposes the same God, Williams likes to reach out across faith backgrounds. This was obvious in his other recent speech, also widely criticised, where he considered the possible abolition of the blasphemy laws and proposed, according to some reports, laws against thoughtless or cruel words. Unity tackled it here, and found much to disagree with.

The main question then has to be this: did Williams really know what he was about to unleash? Sure, Sharia and virtually all the questions surrounding whether Muslims can be both British while retaining their religious identity are incredibly contentious and controversial, but this was the Archbishop, making an incredibly academic, lengthy and considered speech, which ordinarily would have been completely and utterly ignored, except by perhaps the religious affairs correspondents on the broadsheets. If he hadn't approached the World at One, and made a somewhat less articulate summary of his speech (The Wardman Wire has an excellent commentary and transcript of the interview), that would have been most likely what would have happened. That was where the emphasis on how some part of Sharia law being adopted was "unavoidable" came from. If though anyone had listened further than the opening exchanges, they would have realised that the very last thing that Williams was advocating was for Sharia to be used to resolve and pass judgement on individuals where the law itself had been broken.

Even if Williams is genuinely surprised and dismayed by the reaction to his speech, it has to be based on a rather less than intellectual naviety. You mention Sharia and the instant, instinctive image it conjures up is limb chopping, flogging and beheadings. This was always what was going to occupy the tabloids' mindset, and they have had an absolute field day. I haven't even bothered to look at either the Express and Mail, but the Sun's coverage is, to say the least, little sort of sickening in its distortion and use of images that are almost designed to encourage Islamophobia. The Scum naturally decided that the most appropriate image for its front page was the woman in the niqab flashing a v-sign, without any attempt to provide the context in which it was originally taken: when the police raided those who have now pleaded guilty to the beheading plot. They were entitled to feel aggrieved by how the media had descended upon their home and were at the time recklessly scaremongering as usual.

Almost unbelievably, the Sun's headline for its current online, updated piece is "Williams: victory for terrorism". To consider his speech to be any sort of victory for terrorism would require a rhetorical leap that even Melanie Phillips would blanch at, but the Sun is more than happy to link Sharia law with terrorism. This is the second paragraph:

In an explosive outburst Dr Rowan Williams, the country’s top Anglican, said there should be one set of rules for Muslims — and another for everyone else.

No he didn't - what he was clearly articulating was that Muslims could be given the choice, in certain matters of civil law, to use Sharia courts to resolve disputes. Nothing more and nothing less. I completely disagree with him, but he was perfectly entitled to make the argument, and the last thing he was suggesting was completely different systems of laws for those of different religions.

He maintained it was WRONG for followers of Islam to be forced to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

Here's the full sentence that quote is taken from:

It is uncomfortably true that this introduces into our thinking about law what some would see as a 'market' element, a competition for loyalty as Shachar admits. But if what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable.

Williams is clearly going out of his way to try and be as inclusive as possible, all in the aid of what he considers the common good. He knows full well that the vast majority of Muslims are perfectly happy with what the British state offers them, but that some do prefer through their own interpretation of their faith to conduct such matters in accordance with Sharia. This already happens, and will continue to happen. He's suggesting that the state recognise this, which is one argument, and it happens to be wrong. But if both parties are perfectly happy to go along with it, and aren't being forced into it, who are we to say that isn't acceptable?

This is another of the problems that Williams has rather unfortunately highlighted: when the loyalty of any citizen to the country at large is brought into question, the right-wing press launches the equivalent of a verbal scud missile at them. Last week it was outraged that a review of the possibility of teaching patriotism was rejected because it would require the balance of also teaching that not everything Britain has ever done has been a roaring success. The main problem I had was that you simply can't preach patriotism; it's either something you instinctively feel or you don't. That Muslims might decide that our system of civil law isn't good enough for them is obviously a similar insult to everything that this country has ever stood for; that the right-wing press would never question the loyalty of some of the orthodox Jews who use the Beth Din courts for their civil affairs shows the abject hypocrisy on the matter. It would be different if what Williams or even those of the tiny minority in favour of Sharia were proposing that it be used for all criminal offences, but they're not. Consideration must be taken of the prejudices within Sharia, but are there not similar prejudices within Beth Din? I don't know, and the tabloids sure as fuck don't know either. They do however know that Sharia will mean the end of British life as we know it.

Dr Williams’ extraordinary claim is a huge propaganda coup for extremists plotting to end centuries of the British way of life.

How? The extremists want full Sharia law to be the only law, and to apply to everyone, not just Muslims, along with Britain to be part of the caliphate, even though the caliphate only ever spread as far as Spain. Williams hasn't given even the slightest succour to such an idea; the tabloids and their response however has sent a huge message to those who are separatist, where they'll be able to point at the response and hatred directed against Muslims as a whole when such a moderate idea has been suggested, making clear that Islam will never be accepted in any way, shape, or form. Now that's dangerous and guaranteed to breed resentment.

To prove the Sun's specious point, it contacted some of those who survived the 7/7 attacks for their views:

Paul Dadge, famously pictured helping masked 7/7 victim Davina Turrell, 24, was left stunned.

The 31-year-old former fireman, of Cannock, Staffs, said: “The Archbishop’s remarks are unhelpful. I am proud to be British and find the idea that Sharia law would ever become part of British law incredible.”

Mary Burke, 50 — who survived the King’s Cross bomb on July 7 2005 — said: “Britain is a Christian country and should stay a Christian country. I don’t want Islamic law here and I believe most of the British public agree with me.”

The very last thing the ABC would be suggesting is that Britain move from being a Christian country. If he had, the synod really would be calling for his resignation. Neither of those asked to comment likely heard the ABC on either the World at One or had read his speech; they were either told what was said by the Scum's reporters or heard the generally woeful reporting of it. As a result, to ask them to comment was downright misleading and superfluous.

Muslim Labour MP Khalid Mahmood was outraged.

He said: “This is the sort of woolly thinking that gets people into trouble. This sort of talk makes people think Muslims want to separate themselves from the rest of the community and be treated differently. The truth is most Muslims do not want Sharia law.”

Which will of course be ably helped by the tabloid reaction. It's only now right down at the bottom of the article that there's even the slightest clarification of what Williams actually said:

Dr Williams spoke out in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World at One.

He did stress he opposed the extreme elements of Islamic law — including stoning and whipping — but went on: “There is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with aspects of other kinds of religious law.”

Which is handily vague enough to make the average reader imagine that other elements of Sharia would be acceptable, not just where two individuals agree to a Sharia court arbitration.

The Scum's leader is inevitably even worse. Its headline could also be hardly less descriptive of Williams' speech. How it could possibly be a rant or dangerous is a mystery only the leader writer could answer.

IT’S easy to dismiss Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as a silly old goat.

In fact he’s a dangerous threat to our nation. He says the adoption in Britain of parts of Islamic Sharia law is “unavoidable”. If he believes that, he is unfit for his job.

How does offering an opinion make him unsuitable for his job? How could he possibly be a threat to the nation when the Scum is always scaremongering about the few who are a genuine threat, who are nothing like Williams?

Williams says the idea of “one law for all” is “a bit of a danger”.

With that one sentence he destroys his authority and credibility as leader of the Church of England.

Except of course that wasn't even a large proportion of his entire sentence. This is where the Scum has taken that quote from:

I think at the moment there’s a great deal of confusion about this; a lot of what’s been written whether it was about the Catholic church adoptions agencies last year, sometimes what’s written about Jewish or Muslim communities; a lot of what’s written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody; now that principle that there’s one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that, so an approach to law which simply said, ‘There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts’. I think that’s a bit of a danger.

I completely disagree with him, but it isn't dangerous, nor does it destroy his authority or credibility. He's approaching a problem and thinking out loud about it; criticise him all you want, but don't say that he should be sacked or resign for it. That's quite clearly an attempt at suffocating freedom of speech.

He also gives heart to Muslim terrorists plotting our destruction.

They will see his foolish ramblings as a sign that our resolve against extremism is weakening.

The Sun seems to know a lot about how "Muslim terrorists" think. Perhaps they ought to be instructing the government on how to tackle radicalisation, seeing as they know their exact mindset. Jihadists don't care what politicians, let alone what other religious figures think; they only know that they're absolutely right.

Our legal system revolves around the principle of one law for all.

Williams, our religious leader, has a duty to uphold that principle.

And he has, as he's suggesting that our law recognise Sharia courts in civil matters. That would be still mean that there would be one law for all. The Sun is being wilfully blind.

Yet he wants Muslims to have a choice over which law they follow.

Williams says Muslims should be able to ignore British divorce laws.

Another nail in the coffin of Muslim women's rights.

No he isn't. They'd only be able to "ignore" British divorce laws if they hadn't married under the civil system in the first place. This is also to accept that Sharia instantly means that women are at a disadvantage, which is patently untrue, as Sharia is interpreted in a myriad of different ways. If that was the case, any woman, Islamic or not, wouldn't agree to have the arbitration done under a Sharia court, which is the base requirement for both parties to agree in the first place.

Why doesn’t he condemn “honour” killings and forced marriages?

What does that have to do with Sharia? Honour killings and forced marriages are almost always due to tradition and tribal circumstances, not religious differences, although there are a minority of cases where it has been a factor.

Why is our Archbishop promoting a law under which women are stoned to death and shoplifters barbarically dismembered?

Except he directly criticised the "inhumanity" of such punishments. The very last thing he was doing was promoting them. This, incidentally, is the same Sun which last week published Helen Newlove's suggestion that the birch be brought back, and today prints Jamelia's call for the reintroduction of capital punishment. Stoning is especially barbaric, but so are all the current methods of execution, regardless of the law broken by the individual sentenced to death.

As Williams was cosying up to Islam yesterday, one of his bishops — Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester — was being protected by police.

He has received death threats from Muslims for warning of Islamic no-go areas in Britain.

What has Williams said in support of the Bishop? Nothing.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is in the wrong church.

Ah yes, they were certainly Muslims. Never mind that those who jumped on the Bishop's comments, of which there was no evidence to back up, to prove that Islam was inherently dangerous and separatist have plenty to gain from such threats. Besides, he was questioned directly on the World at One about Nazir-Ali's comments and this was his lengthy response:

CL This comes in the context of very fraught debates about community cohesion. How is it achieved that Britain might move forward in that respect? How concerned are you about the state of that debate at the moment and how much do you agree with the statements by Bishop Nazir Ali about ‘no go areas’?

ABC We have got a fragmented society at the moment, internally fragmented, socially fragmented in our cities and fragmented between communities of different allegiance. Now I think that there would be a way of talking about the law being more positive about supporting religious communities that might be seen as deepening or worsening that fragmentation. I don’t want to see that. I do want to see a proper way of talking about shared citizenship and that is a major theme of what I am saying in this lecture. Shared citizenship, whatever we say about religious allegiance we have to have that common ground and know what belongs there and I think when people have talked about mutual isolation of communities, about the ’silo’ model of people as it were living together, sadly there are some communities where it looks as it is true. I think it is not at all the case that we have absolute mutual exclusion. I don’t think it’s the case that we have areas where the law of the land doesn’t run, that would be completely a misleading way of looking at it. I’ve noted in the lecture that we are dealing usually with very law-abiding communities, but we have a lot of social suspicion, a lot of distance, a lot of cultural – not just religious – distance between communities and we just need to go on looking at how that shared citizenship comes through. Now, I think there are ways of doing that. For example in relation to our education system, ways of doing that in connection with local federations and networks of different communities working together for common objectives; like better bus services - as simple as that sometimes. Better infrastructure, addressing issues of common concern about security, about families and so on. Many ways in which that active citizenship can be promoted. So I don’t think that recognising the integrity or independence - the depth of the reality of religious communities - is to ghettoize our future.

CL Was the talk of ‘no go areas’ unhelpful you think in the context of this debate?

ABC I think the phrase, because it echoed of the Northern Irish situation – places where the police couldn’t go – that was what it triggered in many peoples’ minds. I don’t think that was at all what was intended. I don’t think it was meant to point to what I call the ’silo’ problem. The sense of communities not communicating with each other and that is a two way issue as well. As I said a couple of weeks ago many Muslims say that they feel bits of British society are ‘no go’ areas for them places that they can’t go.

Clearly, the Sun is rightly placed to decide who and who isn't in the "wrong church".

As usually happens in this cases, it's not the original speech or comment which starts off the trouble, although as in Jack Straw's comments on the veil both should have known what they were about to unleash, but instead the response and backlash which they cause, usually from those twisting it for their own ends. Williams is wrong, but it was an opinion which he was perfectly entitled to broadcast, and he should be able to do so without newspapers demanding he resign. It's the contempt that the Sun and others have for freedom of speech and most of all, for the truth, which seems to me to be the real danger to our democracy in the long term.

Slight update, with the Guardian getting it right as usual:

Refracted through the twin lenses of media and politics, his words have only served to stir up the sort of fears that could make Muslims more vulnerable to abuse than ever.


Related posts:
Big Sticks and Small Carrots - We're all for tolerance but...
Blairwatch - Death Comes for the Archbishop and Bashing the Bishop update
LC - Contra Canterbury
Enemies of Reason - Get Beardie

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It is naive to assume that women have genuine choice under Sharia law. Islam is a male-dominated religion and culture, and Sharia is a male-dominated legal system. Acceptance of Sharia law in Britain, even in only its civil aspects, will further disadvantage the situation of Muslim women living here.

I'm not arguing for the acceptance of Sharia in any shape or form. Women do however have genuine choice in whether to go along with the Sharia system. I'm also not defending Sharia, and I'm well aware of its inherent biases, but as needs to be constantly pointed out, they have to agree to deal with the affair under Sharia law for it to even approach binging. If they want to potentially disadvantage themselves when they have every opportunity not to, I don't see why we should interfere.

A post that is well worth reading.

I think that the issue that is most important now is not so much the Archbishop who is I believe a fine if fallible man. Instead the big issue is the hate mongers who have come out of the sewers proudly displaying their ignorance and bile. Not surprisingly they are led by Gordon Brown's friends at the Sun

A very good piece. I must admit to being slightly worried after yesterday's post :(

Paul Martin is absolutely right. I've been shocked by the reaction, especially from sources I wouldn't have expected. Williams is something of a throwback and, as an intellectual rather than a communicator, is not the man for the job. Having said that, most of the responses I've seen say a lot more about the complainers than they do about the Archbishop.

Anticant. I have the deepest respect for you and your achievements but I do think on this issue you have fundamentally misunderstood what is being suggested, as Septicisle has eloquently pointed out in the comment above.

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