Responses come for the archbishop

Canterbury 01On Friday, we looked at some of the media coverage of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' suggestion that some aspects of sharia should be introduced in England. The response to Williams' comments was so negative that some of the archbishop's defenders proposed that people had misunderstood his comments. Some of them argued the press was to blame. In my original post, I encouraged readers to read the actual interview that sparked the firestorm. We've noted before that the media tend to sensationalize Williams' views. Williams himself is blaming the press. But Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan is having none of it:

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has set off a storm in Britain by saying that some aspects of sharia Islamic law would have to be integrated into the legal system there. There has been almost unanimous criticism of his proposals, including from some Muslim politicians. I've read through both his BBC interview and Temple Festival speech to see if there is another message that is being drowned out by the headlines and hullabaloo. There are signs of one, but there are so many questionable assumptions and assertions about Islam and sharia in there that these issues naturally dominate.

The archbishop's statement about some aspects of sharia being "unavoidable" is so clear that it is hard to argue in his defence that it was taken out of context or hardened up by headline-hungry hacks.

Heneghan goes on to write the follow-up questions he would have asked if Williams had made his remarks in a press conference rather than a BBC interview or the Temple Festival speech.

The Guardian published a too-short FAQ on sharia and a commentary from a documentary filmmaker defending sharia's use in divorce courts.

I thought the BBC did some nice follow-up. They devoted an entire article to how the row is affecting the Anglican Communion and also ran an interview with Ben Kwashi, Archbishop of Jos in Northern Nigeria. He says that Nigerian Christians, who find sharia "unbearable," are in shock that Williams called for its inclusion in England. He said he worries that Williams' words will be used against Christians in their efforts both in "the cause of freedom and the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ." Here are a few of the BBC's questions and answers:

BBC: How surprised are you that a Christian Archbishop should have suggested, in some circumstances, that Sharia might be an appropriate part of the legal system in a country like Britain?

BK. I am shocked. I am disappointed. I am in total disbelief. Because my hope is that when he, Archbishop of Canterbury, comes to Nigeria for example, and he comes to visit us, we will take him to our leaders, some of whom are Muslims and some of whom are Christians, and he can then speak on our behalf where we are not having a fair share. Can we now look up to him as a man who can speak on our behalf? You all know about the cutting of hands in Zamfara State. You remember the case of the woman in Kaduna State who was going to be stoned to death. All of those kinds of things are what we now are saying that we must examine carefully the implementation of Sharia and we are putting our discussions across with our own Muslim friends around here.

BBC: The Archbishop was very clear that he did not want to see those sorts of inhuman punishments, he called them, implemented in Britain. Is there a danger that this argument is getting confused?

BK. It is not confused at all. Because once you ask for the first step of Sharia law you are going to get to the last of it. By 1960 when Nigeria got Independence, it began as penal code. Once it came to this generation they upgraded it to full blown Sharia. So it is only a matter of time when you begin from somewhere that you get to the real thing.

I'm not sure the press was confused about the archbishop's comments so much as Williams and his defenders are confused why so many found the comments disconcerting. Thankfully some media outlets are covering many of the angles to this story. People who think that introducing sharia law to England is a good idea and people who think it is a bad idea have many complicated and nuanced reasons for their views. Let's hope the coverage of their debate sheds light rather than heat.

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