Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, is generally considered to be unusually intelligent for an Anglican prelate. His interventions in public debate are generally thoughtful and serious, and he has a background as a successful academic theologian. But his pronouncements this week on the prospect of adopting sharia law in the UK rank high in the list of the most unhelpful and perplexing utterances from a major public figure in recent years.
In a speech on Thursday night at the Royal Courts of Justice on 'Civil and Religious Law in England', Williams made the startling claim that giving official sanction to sharia in the UK was "unavoidable" if the Muslim community are not be "faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".
Accordingly, Williams advocates a system of "supplemental jurisdiction" in some areas of UK law – for example, regarding inheritance and family law – whereby the state would recognize the legitimacy of decisions made in religious courts according to sharia principles, and consider them as binding over members of the Muslim community.
The first thing to say about this suggestion is that it is deeply insulting to many law-abiding Muslims in this country. Williams suggests in the text of his speech that there is some kind of impossibility in Muslims maintaining loyalty to both their culture and to the British state whilst they are subjected solely to the jurisdiction of UK law. This is the most pernicious nonsense, and is the kind of thing that one expects to hear only from xenophobes and fundamentalists.
The UK has thousands of practising Muslim lawyers but, if Williams is correct, their commitment to the secular British legal system can be achieved only at the price of their loyalty to their religion and culture. To claim, as Williams does, that loyalty to Islam and to the British state are unsustainable under our current legal system is equivalent to saying that Muslims are loyal to their faith only if they insist on living under sharia law. Williams's claim would be even more insulting if it were not so implausible as to be easy to dismiss.
Thankfully, we have countless examples of serious-minded practising Muslims who reject Williams's outlandish claim and demonstrate its falsity by their ongoing allegiance to both their religion and to the laws of their country.
In his speech, Williams wisely counsels in favour of the "deconstruction of crude oppositions and mythologies". It is a shame that he offers this good advice immediately after offering a particularly crude opposition of his own.
A second peculiarity of Williams's position is that he argues for it by invoking the value of freedom. Giving sharia law an official status as a "supplemental jurisdiction" is presented by Williams as a way of giving "Muslim communities… the freedom to live under sharia law". But in invoking values such as freedom, we need to think first of the concrete freedoms of particular individuals, rather than the collective freedoms of abstractions such as "the Muslim community".
In order for sharia law to be integrated into the UK legal system, the judgements of sharia courts would need to be given the force of law.
That means that, for example, the decisions of a sharia court in conducting a divorce settlement would be legally binding. What then of the position of a Muslim woman who found herself granted a paltry settlement by a sharia court?
Well, it seems that things could go one of two ways. Either the decision of the sharia court is taken as final, and the woman has thereby lost the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the rest of her fellow citizens; or else she retains her rights and freedoms as a UK citizen, and can challenge that divorce settlement in a (secular) court of law.
If the former course is taken, then her individual rights and freedoms have been sacrificed, and we have the unwelcome spectre of a UK citizen being denied basic legal rights on the basis of her cultural or religious status. Under the latter option, where the decisions of sharia courts are denied any independent legal standing and treated as (at best) provisional, it is difficult to see how we would really have a 'supplemental jurisdiction' of sharia at all. Sharia courts would be treated simply as informal methods for dispute resolution, without any special legal status (just as they are at the moment). But the choice is stark: sharia courts can be given full legal status only at the cost of individual freedoms, and through the suspension of certain legal rights of a section of the population.
These are some of the reasons why Williams's suggestion is so pernicious. The reasons why it is so confused are equally revealing.
Williams says 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."
So, despite initial appearances, Williams clearly means to take the second of the two paths mentioned above: sharia would have standing only insofar as it was fully consistent with UK law, and involved no restriction on individual rights and freedoms. But this is not, then, a question of 'supplemental jurisdiction' rather, it is no jurisdiction at all. Williams wants to have it both ways: legal enactment of sharia, but only insofar as it leaves all our legal rights exactly as they already were. But that is not the same as bringing sharia judgements into UK law – it is merely licensing their ongoing application as a kind of optional and informal method for dispute resolution.
Sharia judgements gain their authority as putatively embodying the “eternal and absolute will of God for the universe and for its human inhabitants in particular” (to quote Williams). To put things bluntly, then, to suggest that sharia be taken into UK law is to suggest that one particular tradition’s understanding of the will of God be given legal standing. It is then hard to see why the will of God should be ignored when it happens to contravene, say, existing UK divorce law or inheritance law. The consistent positions are embodied by either a fully secular or a fully theocratic jurisprudence. Williams’s halfway house is just the sort of well-meaning but incoherent muddle that its critics often diagnose in the thinking of the Church of England.
I'll end with a puzzle about Williams's view on sharia. Williams, let us not forget, is a Christian. He believes, I assume, that each of us is possessed of an immortal soul, and that the salvation of that soul is dependent on our embracing the teachings of Jesus Christ. He presumably also believes that, whatever might be said of their sophistication and of the richness of the tradition from which they spring, Muslim interpretations of the will of God are mistaken. In short, either sharia has a sound theological basis, or else the doctrines of the Church that Williams leads are themselves in fundamental error. So, what Williams is doing when he calls for sharia law to be incorporated into UK law is that he is supporting a legal system which he must, on pain of clear self-contradiction, consider to be misguided and illegitimate. Why on earth would he do such a thing?
The answer, I suggest, is an illuminating one. Williams's real aim is an attack on secularism. Giving Muslim legal traditions a privileged position in UK law is a way of attempting to de-legitimize a fully secular legal system. It is a way of protecting the special position of religion in British public life, and, with it, thereby protecting the grotesque anachronism of special status of the Church of England. If Williams really cared about the value commitments of his fellow citizens, whether Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or atheist, he should be campaigning relentlessly for the disestablishment of his own church.
For all his erudition and scholarship, only then would it be plausible to think that Rowan Williams was being truly serious.