Last week, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams found himself at the center of controversy over a lecture and interview about the relationship between Muslim religious law and British civil law. Most of the reaction against the Archbishop's words have assumed that he came out in favor of the inclusion of sharia law into British civil law, including the notion that there would be some parallel jurisdiction that would separate Muslims from the rest of British society.
Now that the dust has settled, here is a summary of what the Archbishop actually said, some of the analysis of the speech and some of the reactions to it.
Francis Gibb of the Times of London summarizes his speech:
Dr Williams said that it “seems unavoidable” that some aspects of Sharia would be adopted in Britain. He urged that the law do more to accommodate the religious convictions and practices of other faith groups....
Sharia is controversial in the West because – as the Archbishop put it – it calls up “all the darkest images of Islam”. He added: “What most people think they know of Sharia is that it is repressive towards women and wedded to archaic and brutal physical punishments,” such as stoning, flogging and amputation.
Timing is another factor: his comments come during heightened tensions over fundamentalist Islam’s link with terrorism, along with growing concern that English law, influenced by political correctness, is bending over to favour or accommodate minority ethnic beliefs, practices and sensitivities in a way that it would not for mainstream Christian ones.
The complaints with the Archbishop's words boil down to three main types of arguments: there are those who are troubled by the Archbishop's words because of the human rights issues implicit in the application of sharia law in some cultures, particularly for women. Others are concerned that these proposals will not promote cohesion in the culture but instead exacerbate separations already perceived in British culture. Still others believe that the ideas (further) undermine the essential "Britishness" of the culture.
The Archbishop said in his lecture:
To recognise sharia is to recognise a method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts rather than a single system. In a discussion based on a paper from Mona Siddiqui at a conference last year at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, the point was made by one or two Muslim scholars that an excessively narrow understanding sharia as simply codified rules can have the effect of actually undermining the universal claims of the Qur'an....
He says that individuals should be free to “choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters”, which may include “aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution”. He cites areas of Orthodox Jewish practice, which is the best example for what he seems to have in mind. The Beth Din is a Jewish court that mediates on a range of disputes within the Orthodox community. Sharia councils do the same but they are not formalised or recognised as the Beth Din is. Nor could decisions be taken without regard to the laws of the land. Dr Williams accepts this: people opting into such a forum for the resolution of their dispute cannot be denied the wider rights claimed by others in society, regardless of faith, or punish its members for claiming those rights....
So what happened between the Archbishop's words and the reaction?
The Archbishop himself anticipates the problem:
Among the manifold anxieties that haunt the discussion of the place of Muslims in British society, one of the strongest, reinforced from time to time by the sensational reporting of opinion polls, is that Muslim communities in this country seek the freedom to live under sharia law. And what most people think they know of sharia is that it is repressive towards women and wedded to archaic and brutal physical punishments; just a few days ago, it was reported that a 'forced marriage' involving a young woman with learning difficulties had been 'sanctioned under sharia law' – the kind of story that, in its assumption that we all 'really' know what is involved in the practice of sharia, powerfully reinforces the image of – at best – a pre-modern system in which human rights have no role. The problem is freely admitted by Muslim scholars. 'In the West', writes Tariq Ramadan in his groundbreaking Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, 'the idea of Sharia calls up all the darkest images of Islam...It has reached the extent that many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to the concept for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word' (p.31).
And, as the Economist summarizes, the Williams observations about public perception came true--in response to the Archbishop's own words:
“What a burkha” declared the Sun newspaper, alongside a picture of a head-covered figure making a rude gesture. To judge by the tone of the British press (and not only the tabloid press), the Archbishop—who is also the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, numbering 80m people—might have been advocating the mandatory covering of every female British head, plus the instant introduction of amputation, whipping and stoning for the most trivial misdemeanours.
Outside of the immediate negative reaction to the speech or reports of it, it seems that the conventional wisdom is that the Archbishop, while making important points and proposing an interesting approach, was insensitive to the nuances of communicating complex ideas in the current media climate. The Economist continues:
How could one speech have united against him the liberals, the conservatives, most Muslims, most Christians, all secularists, all the political parties, everyone who only read the headlines, and almost everyone who read beyond the headlines of the lecture he gave? Could any common idiot have written it?
There are people at Lambeth Palace who could have told Williams what the headlines were going to say this morning. My understanding is that some of them did, but he thought he knew better.
Andrew Brown of the Guardian says:
It is all very well for the archbishop to explain that he does not want the term "sharia" to refer to criminal punishments, but for most people that's what the word means: something atavistic, misogynistic, cruel and foreign. It is the Death of a Princess, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the hangings in Iran and the stonings in Afghanistan. It is the law which locks up middle-aged primary teachers for allowing their classes to name a teddy bear Muhammad. To the British media a demand for sharia is a demand to "behead those who insult Islam". A failure to understand this simple matter of modern English usage should cost someone his job.
And Gibb of the Times wrote:
Another reason is that Dr Williams, a highly erudite man, expresses his thoughts in nuanced and complex language that is not easily accessible and open to widespread misunderstanding. Many commentators are unclear exactly what he said, and even those who attended his lecture agreed that they would have to go away to digest its contents.
Ruth Gledhill of the Times offers an analysis that says the intellectual climate inside Lambeth contributes to a situation where they see the reaction to speech not as a crisis but as a misunderstanding.
Dr Williams was advised before his speech on Thursday evening that the content could prove controversial. He heeded the warnings but went ahead anyway. He was “taken aback” by just how controversial it then proved but remains “chirpy” and unrepentant about his comments because he believes that they needed to be made.
Although he is a holy and spiritual man, danger lies in the appearance of the kind of intellectual arrogance common to many of Britain’s liberal elite. It is an arrogance that affords no credibility or respect to the popular voice. And although this arrogance, with the assumed superiority of the Oxbridge rationalist, is not shared by his staff at Lambeth Palace, it is by some of those outside Lambeth from whom he regularly seeks counsel.
Neither the Archbishop nor his staff regard his speech as mistaken. They are merely concerned that it has been misunderstood.
The BBC , the Telegraph and the Times all report that some people want Williams to step down either because they disagree with what he said or believe that he has irrevocably damaged his ability to lead.
Others, including Williams' predecessor Lord Carey (writing, strangely enough, in the News of the World) don't believe he should resign even as they say that the speech was problematic.
There has been a call in other quarters for people to calm down and actually read the Archbishop's words. Cartoonist and Blogger Dave Walker started a Facebook group called "The Archbishop of Canterbury is a good man." Walker writes:
If like me you believe that the Archbishop of Canterbury has been treated remarkably unfairly by certain sections of the media in the last few days then why not, if you are on Facebook, join this group, entitled ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury is a good man’.
Joining the group affirms that you believe:
1) The media has misinterpreted the spirit of what Dr Williams was talking about in his lecture
2) As an intellectual, and a spiritual leader, Dr Williams should feel free to express a carefully considered opinion.
3) That Dr Williams is one of the most gifted minds in Britain, and his views should be given careful consideration.
As of this writing, the group has already attracted 300 members.
This week, Archbishop Williams will face General Synod to further clarify his speech and try to get back to work to leading the Church of England and unifying the Anglican Communion.