The devil is in the details

Canterbury 02On Friday, we looked at some of the media coverage of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' suggestion that some aspects of sharia should be formally introduced in England. On Monday, we looked at some of the responses Williams' speech has engendered. Well, this story is rolling on and on. So let's look at some of the additional follow-up coverage. The Washington Post summarized where things stand after Williams addressed the General Synod:

Williams, spiritual leader of the world's approximately 80 million Anglicans, made his remarks Monday to a friendly though generally skeptical audience, the General Synod, the Church of England's national assembly. Members gave him a standing ovation when he entered.

"Some of what has been heard is a very long way indeed from what was actually said," he noted, adding that he "must of course take responsibility for any unclarity" and for any "misleading choice of words."

"I tried to make clear that there could be no 'blank checks' in this regard, in particular as regards some of the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women," he said. "The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity."

That's a bit of a different view than one Daily Mail columnist had:

The moment a flunkey bashed the Chamber's wall with a gavel and the Archbishop bumbled in at 3.17pm yesterday they stood as one and clapped.

Some even cheered, thin, fluting voices raised in defiance of the public outcry and the media's firestorm.

A united Church of England. Now there's a rare sight!

The ovation lasted well over a minute, the Church's ruling body giving its much-flayed high priest full gas and gaiters support. He looked genuinely embarrassed, poor lamb, and kept trying to get them to shut up.

During his address, Williams apologized for his "misleading choice of words" that had been "clumsily deployed."

Anyway, the story to this point is that we had Williams' lecture followed by outrage or passionate defense followed by Williams saying he should have been more clear. What I'm worried about is that this will be, more or less, the end of the coverage.

Put another way, let's look at this editorial from the left-leaning Guardian (U.K.):

Dr Williams' naivety played a major part in the treatment he has attracted, particularly the casual way in which he flung the explosive term "sharia law" into the debate. Another part of his problem, however, was the sheer complexity of his argument. Dr Williams is a scholar: his meditation on Thursday was littered with all manner of references. His argued with subtlety that laws are not just instruments of control, but that they also have a role in affirming the affiliations people owe to one another. In a multicultural society such affiliations are diverse - diversity which, he reasoned, parts of the law must better reflect. This was the stuff of seminars and was never going to register in the mass market without being boiled down into soundbites.

I would hate to think that the message that religious figures take from this Williams episode is that their messages have to be dumbed down for the soundbite culture. I agree that Williams' argument is complex. The response -- aside from a few tabloid-type responses -- is also complex. Our news culture tends to obsess on a scandalous news story and then drop it.

I would appreciate more stories like Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan's. You should read the whole thing but he begins by saying that while the headlines might be shouting about stoning or hand-chopping, the real sharia questions center around divorce and inheritance cases:

But "the devil is in the detail," as the saying goes.

Sharia law is not a single written code -- there are four schools of interpretation for Sunnis, one for Shi'ites and disagreements within them. Men can enjoy more rights than women, a stand that clashes with western concepts of equality.

"Even in a city like Bradford, you have four different schools of sharia law, so which are you going to accept?" Baroness Haleh Afshar, a law professor, told the BBC.

Heneghan explains what sharia is -- he wrote another article on just that topic -- and says that the vast bulk of cases handled by sharia courts deal with marriage, divorce, inheritance and business. Williams suggested that sharia court decisions could be accepted as long as they don't contradict British civil law: scalesojustice

"What Dr Williams is talking about in practical terms is either superfluous ... or it runs the risk of compromising his other key principles," Simon Barrow, director of the British religious think-tank Ekklesia, argued in an analysis.

The principles of equality and individual rights would rule out many sharia verdicts common in Muslim countries.

In many traditional sharia courts, a woman's testimony is worth half that of a man and a daughter has a right to only half the inheritance that a son gets. In child custody cases, men and Muslims usually have priority over women and non-Muslims.

Williams and his defenders keep saying his sin was putting forth a complex, scholarly and nuanced argument. But his 6,000-word lecture was actually pretty straightforward and gives reporters and the public plenty to chew on. The proper response to the lecture is to dissect his argument, as Heneghan has begun to do, and analyze its implications and practicality. Opinion writers are having a heyday with this but there's no reason why the lead shouldn't be taken by religion reporters on the ground.

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