Rowan Williams: Sharia law question "still pertinent"

The former Archbishop of Canterbury revisits his 2008 speech.

In 2008 Rowan Williams gave a lecture to lawyers at the Royal Courts of Justice about the relationship between Islam and British law. His comments – or a distorted version of them – provoked outrage in the right-wing press. The assertion that the use of certain aspects of Sharia law "seem[ed] unavoidable" led to wild accusations, even after the incumbent Lord Chief Justice Nicholas Phillips, the most senior judge in England and Wales, asserted that there was "no reason why Sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution", highlighting that this did not constitute a "parallel legal system" and would never "override English common law".

Speaking on Monday at the launch of a book of academic essays inspired by his 2008 lecture, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said:

I believe that the question I attempted to raise in 2008 is still a pertinent one. A question not simply about how we deal with the very specific issue of Islam and British law, but a series of questions about law itself.

Dr Williams, now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, told the audience at Fleet Street’s Temple Church:

Behind what I was saying in 2008 lay an inchoate but quite a strong belief that partnership between the state and the associations in a society is not in fact rocket science.  

He cited the partnership between the state and the Church of England in providing education, "one in which both parties have accommodated one another", adding: "in any such model there needs to be statutory resources, statutory checks invoked to make associational life and standards more obviously accountable and professional."

The debate over statutory regulations which would help guarantee "intelligence, coherence and transparency" among organisations with self-governing rules (trade unions, universities and churches were cited, along with Sharia councils, as examples) rolled on throughout the evening. Mohammed Amin, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum – a group within the Conservative Party – questioned whether Baroness Cox's Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill restricted too heavily the capacity for Sharia courts to make judgements according to their faith. Baroness Cox (seated four rows back) stood up to defend her bill as necessary for the protection of Muslim women. Two women from Sharia councils in London and Birmingham argued that adequate protection was already given within their respective jurisdictions. They wanted to clarify that in many cases – the custody of children or domestic violence, for example – the council would refuse to arbitrate and refer the parties either to the civil courts or where necessary to the police.

Williams also addressed the subject of women's rights, saying:

The state will always be asking – are there aspects of this practice which generate avoidable inequalities, are there aspects of this practice which (to use my own terminology in the original lecture) 'block access' for certain sorts of people. This is of course most acute in relation to the position of women in many Sharia courts and in many of the practices that we see around us.

He continued:

One of the more constructive things that was said to me in 2008 after the original lecture was said by a concerned Muslim lawyer who said: 'Sharia practice in this country needs to be exposed to the light' – that is, it needs to be made accountable and professional in ways which the legal establishment and statutory authority is best placed to take forward.

As became clear during the evening's discussion, judges and legal professionals have been grappling with the question of how to work with Sharia councils, long before Williams raised the subject. The only indication he fostered any regrets at having done so came when he said:

I recognise that in some of what I wrote in 2008 I had perhaps veered towards a slightly more ‘partnership of equals’ model than is realistic.

He also recounted a children’s story:

There’s an episode in Winnie the Pooh when Owl’s house is destroyed by a strong wind. As Pooh picks himself up from the wreckage he looks around and says, 'Did I do that?' I think the audience may perhaps understand that I have a certain fellow feeling with Winnie the Pooh in this respect.

Rowan Williams outside Church House in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.