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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle