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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.