I’ve done my duty and waded through the full text of the Rowan Williams address on “civil and religious law in England” that’s helped to kick up all the fuss about shari'a, and I can report that the Archbishop’s various defenders have a point – if you detach the address from the actual historical context in which it was delivered, you’re left with a somewhat-turgid but nonetheless interesting meditation on the relationship between civil law and religious law, and between the liberal state and religious communities.
Unfortunately, this is the historical context in which it was delivered:
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a woman who works in an advocacy role for Muslim women in an area that, quite independently of the Bishop of Rochester, she described as a “no-go area” for non-Muslims. Her clients were women in the process of being sectioned into mental health units in the NHS. This woman, who for obvious reasons begged not to be identified, told me: “The men get tired of their wives. Or bored. Or maybe the wife objects to her daughter being forced into a marriage she doesn't want. Or maybe she starts wearing western clothes.There can be many reasons. The women are sent for asssessment to a hospital. The GP referring them is Muslim. The psychiatrist assessing them is Muslim and male. I have sat in these assessments where the psychiatrist will not look the woman patient in the eye because she is a woman. Can you imagine! A psychiatrist refusing to look his patient in the eye? The woman speaks little or no English. She is sectioned. She is divorced. There are lots of these women in there, locked up in these hospitals. Why don’t you people write about this?'
My interlocuter went very red and almost started to cry. Instead, she began shouting at me. I was a member of the press. “You must write about this,” she begged.
“I can’t,” I said. “Not unless you become a whistle-blower. Or give me some evidence. Or something.”
She shook her head. “I can't be identified,” she said. “I would be killed. And so would the women.”
Perhaps there will come a time when an Archbishop of Canterbury will have the luxury to muse at length on whether it might be appropriate for his nation to consider some sort of “plural jurisdiction” where Muslim communities are concerned. But regardless of his good intentions, it seems to me the height of folly for this head of the Church of England, at this moment in the history of his nation and his faith, to wander in the gardens of intellectual theory while brushing away the actual controversies on the ground. (“The ‘forced marriage’ question is the one most often referred to here, and it is at the moment undoubtedly a very serious and scandalous one; but precisely because it has to do with custom and culture rather than directly binding enactments by religious authority, I shall refer to another issue …”) It seems beyond irresponsible for a prelate in his position to build legal castles in the air, assuring us that “if any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no ‘supplementary’ jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights,” at a time when Her Majesty’s government seems incapable of preventing the spread of a de facto plural jurisdiction that may do exactly that. And it is frankly embarrassing for a man charged with the defense of Christianity in England to behave as though he's more interested in generalizing about religions (“the umma or the Church or whatever …”) than in drawing distinctions between them, or to imply that there is little in the theology, history and politics of Islam - save for what "some committed Islamic primitivists" would have you believe - that would distinguish it from any other "religious minority" seeking a "degree of accommodation" from the liberal state.
In short, he seems like a complete wally to me.
Photo by Flickr user SouthbankSteve used under a Creative Commons license.