Inequality under the law

CanterburyArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave an interview to the BBC this week that is sending shockwaves throughout England. Here's a relevant excerpt from the full interview, in which he advocates that aspects of sharia law be introduced to England:

[A]n 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.

Being that Williams did attack, as he admits, a pillar on which Western liberal democracy stands, all hell is breaking loose across the pond. And unlike some previous instances, it seems that the coverage of Williams' remarks has not exaggerated his views.

Still, whenever reading a story about the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks, I suggest going to the source rather than taking what you hear at face value. The full interview, in which he says he's "no expert" in Muslim law but goes on to talk about it at length and in a surprisingly direct fashion, is here. Most of the early write-ups were simple, straightforward accounts of what Williams said, such as this one from the BBC:

Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4's World at One that the UK has to "face up to the fact" that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.

Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".

Much of the follow-up reporting is simply looking at how Williams' remarks are being taken by, well, most everybody. Religion reporter Ruth Gledhill of the Times (U.K.) cowrote this follow-up with Phillip Webster:

The Archbishop of Canterbury came under fierce attack last night from the Government, his own Church and other religions after he advocated the adoption of parts of Sharia, or Islamic law, in Britain.

Leaders of all the main political parties made clear that they did not accept Dr Rowan Williams's assertion that the incorporation of some aspects of Sharia was "unavoidable".

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, condemned his comments as "muddled and unhelpful" and one senior bishop said that he was "surprised and concerned" by Dr Williams's remarks.

Say what you want about the Archbishop, he sure knows how to create news. It will be interesting to see where the story goes from here. In his interview, he said that all the brutality, inhumanity and unjustness associated with sharia law is just "one particular expression of it which is historically conditioned." Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan asks some good questions in light of that view:

Who would decide which sharia laws would apply and which would not? Would Muslims be able to choose between the civil and the sharia courts? Could defendants appeal to civil courts if they thought a sharia court decision violated their basic rights?

Ruth Gledhill wrote up a column headlined "Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?." She says that's exactly what many of her readers have asked her throughout the day. (And reading through various British media outlet forums, I think she's being kind.) She expresses surprise that Williams, who normally obfuscates a bit, was so "uncharacteristically clear" about his views of sharia law. She notes that no Muslim organization has called for what Williams has. She quotes one of the church's bishops, someone who Williams criticized recently for bringing up the issue of "no-go" areas for non-Muslims in England: ladyjustice

The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, responded: 'English law is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and, in particular, our notions of human freedoms derive from that tradition. In my view, it would be simply impossible to introduce a tradition, like sharia into this corpus without fundamentally affecting its integrity.'

Gledhill ended her piece with a frightening story:

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.'

So there you have it. After weeks of wondering what to do, inspired by the Archbishop, I've taken her word that she is telling the truth, respected her anonymity, and written it anyway.

When anyone calls for the inclusion of sharia law in the well-established legal system of England's liberal democracy, that's a huge political and religious story. When the person calling for Muslim law is the leader of a large Christian church communion, it's hard to understate the gravity of the situation. This story has huge implications in Britain and beyond and I look forward to seeing some quality reportage and analysis out of it. Please let us know if you see any particularly good or bad stories.

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