Was Rowan Williams playing ‘good cop’ to Michael Nazir-Ali’s ‘bad cop’? Or was he just incredibly naïve?

Cranmer notes:

Dr [Rowen] Williams did not advocate Shari’a law; he said quite distinctly that ‘aspects’ of it might be incorporated into British law. He said other religions enjoyed tolerance of their own laws, and called for ‘constructive accommodation’ with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes. But he stressed that it could never be allowed to take precedence over an individual’s rights as a citizen. This is an important distinction.

Asked if the adoption of Shari’a law was necessary for community cohesion, Dr Williams said that certain conditions of Shari’a ‘are already recognised in our society and under our law, so it is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system’.

It is this statement which exposes the barefaced hypocrisy of the present government, for New Labour has already permitted Shari’a principles to be applied to Muslims and not to other British citizens. While the Prime Minister’s spokesman insisted that ‘British law would be based on British values’, he admitted that concessions had already been made in specific instances, such as a relaxation of the law on stamp duty to avoid it being paid twice when Shari’a-compliant mortgages were used. And husbands with multiple wives have been given permission to claim extra welfare benefits following a year-long review, and this will lead inexorably to different pension rights and exemption from death duties. Once the Government recognised and legitimised polygamy, it is only a matter of time before legislative creep demands further accommodating exemptions.

And yet the Archbishop’s naivety is astonishing. He treats Radio 4 as if it were an Oxford theological college, and assumes that his audience is made up of academics with the ability to dissect and analyse words with his professorial precision.

Shari’a may be a complex and convoluted legal system, but it means only one thing in the UK: oppression, barbarism and injustice. This judgement may in itself be unjust, but the word is alien and, like ‘jihad’, has taken on its own meaning.

A similar remark on Williams tactics is made by Global Dashboard:

As ever, when you actually listen to what he says, he comes across as thoughtful, considered and nuanced; he points, for instance, to the fact that Orthodox Jewish courts already exist in the UK. But I can’t help wondering whether this is a pretty bad error of judgement in communication terms. Even the BBC’s own coverage of the story on BBC News Online loses most of the nuances; I’ve listened to the whole interview, and I’m not sure that I fully understand where Williams is going with this.

The risk here is that what would have been fine as an article in Prospect, say, or the London Review of Books, ignites a firestorm by dint of appearing first on a broadcast medium, followed by immediate pickup on the internet. Just wait for the reactions from the US right wing blogosphere to roll in as they gleefully take this as confirmation of all their predictions about dhimmitude. It’s the “unavoidable” bit that’ll really drive the story. They’re going to have a hard few days’ work in the Lambeth Palace press office…

Meanwhile at the Independent’s religion correspondent, Paul Vallely has the following remarks:

Rowan Williams bridles when anyone suggests that he is the Anglican church’s equivalent of the Pope. But he has made the same mistake in discussing sharia law that Pope Benedict XVI made in his ill-fated foray on the subject of Islam at the University of Regensburg two years ago, which sparked protests around the world, the murder of a nun and much else.

The error is assuming that the leader of a major church has the same intellectual freedom that he had when he was merely an eminent theologian. The cold fact is that the semiotics are entirely different. An academic may call for a nuanced renegotiation of society’s attitudes to the internal laws of religious communities. But when the Archbishop of Canterbury does that the headline follows, as night follows day: “Sharia law in UK is unavoidable, says Archbishop.”

This is not what he was saying, and yet it is. News has little room for the subtleties of academic gavottes around delicate subjects. A canny religious leader – or at any rate his press office – ought to know that.

The problem comes when you ask what is meant by sharia. Most of us are clear. It is to do with the stoning to death of adulterous women (even when they have been raped) and chopping the hands off thieves. It is what the Saudis do, and the Taliban.

And lastly, Andrew Brown at Comment is free closes with:

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. Let’s hope I’m wrong.


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