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 French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.