Attack on secularism

Rowan Williams' comments on sharia law are dangerous nonsense, and insult Brtain's Muslims, argues M

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.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.