Rowan Williams and Sharia Law

There are 2 things I’d like to blog on today but I think I’ll do the other one tomorrow. I’m on a reading week in 2 of my subjects so I’ll have a bit of time.

Anyway there’s been a lot of controversy across the UK this week because the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has said that Sharia Law is ‘unavoidable‘ in Britain, and that he would encourage parts of it to be incorporated into British Law in order to aid social cohesion. This is rather difficult for me because I’m going to defend his position from the attacks I’ve heard most commonly on online forums discussing the issue.

First of all, a lot of people have been saying things like “why should we follow Sharia Law when it oppresses women and has lots of other human rights issues associated with it?” That’s the very definition of straw-man argument. Dr Williams hasn’t said that we should oppress women or cut off people’s hands or whatever, he’s merely suggested incorporating certain aspects of it. Presumably that would mean taking the good bits rather than the bad, so we shouldn’t think about what he’s asking for as bringing Sharia Law, intact, to Britain.

The next one I’ve noticed is something like “if they want to come to this country they should stop trying to change Britain and abide by British Law”. There is a general widespread assumption which associates Islam with a geographical region in the Middle East. There are plenty of Muslims who are British, they’re not all immigrants. Just because Sharia Law might be active in places in the Middle East, doesn’t mean that British Muslims have all come here from there. To take this thinking further, now that it’s clear that many Muslims are British, would people who make this assertion also deny British people of other ethnic or social groups the right to request changes in legislation?

For example, last year gay people in Britain won the right to civil partnerships. Was this wrong? Should they have just accepted their lot and “abided by British Law”, and stopped trying to change Britain? No, I don’t think so. Just as British homosexuals have the right to request changes in legislation to accommodate themselves better, so do British Muslims have the right to request legislation to accommodate themselves better. If everyone stopped trying to change Britain, then we’d still be in an absolute monarchy stuck with slavery and strict blasphemy laws, and only landowners would have the vote.

When I first heard the news, my first concern was for the rule of law, and I’ve heard many people making similar statements. You can’t have one system of law for some people and another for others. Everyone within British jurisdiction should live by the same laws, otherwise the system becomes unworkable. 2 legal systems would also fail to aid social cohesion, because it could only be a divisive force. I think I was remembering the similar situation they have in Ontario, Canada, whereby in order to save on court time, two individuals may agree to arbitrate a civil dispute using any form of authority that they both recognise, most commonly religious law.

But we’re being unfair here. Dr Williams has said nothing about having 2 parallel systems of law, merely incorporating aspects of Sharia Law into our own system. There would be no such problem and the rule of law would remain intact. Our law is fluid and it would just be a change in legislation, just like any other.

So it sounds like I’m all for it, doesn’t it? Not exactly, I just think the arguments that are being used against him are characteristic of editorials in The Sun and really 2 dimensional. I have no objection to what he’s saying, but I don’t see the point in suggesting it. Surely the aspects of Sharia Law that would be desirable in our system are things that we’ve already thought of and are already part of our law? So we’re either taking positive aspects that we’ve already got legislation on, or we’re taking negative aspects that are undesirable.

The way he thinks it would aid social cohesion tells me that he thinks the mere fact that it would be taken from Sharia would tell Muslims that we’re listening to them, so in effect all he’s suggesting is that we take our existing laws and point a big arrow at it, saying “look, this is the same as this in Sharia Law! We value our Muslim citizens”, thereby Islamifying our laws to make them look more appealing. Which isn’t really doing anything, so why’s he suggesting it?

In any case I think he was pretty stupid to bring this up. He’s fully aware how many racists and xenophobes there are in this country, and he’s bringing a giant hammer down on his own head. The suggestion is just going to fuel hatred for Muslims in anti-Muslim groups, and possibly allow them to gain support. It was a stupid thing to say.

Afterthought: As a related aside, I’d like to make it clear that just because a piece of moral guidance comes from a religious source, doesn’t mean that I’m going to disagree with it. I personally agree with many of the teachings of Jesus, and I’m sure I would with many of Mohammed’s if I took the time to read them, but I will make up my own mind in each individual instance and won’t take guidance merely on authority.


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