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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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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