ABC on Sharia (with update)

The Archbishop of Canterbury (Head of Church of England) Rowan Williams has got himself into quite a controversy over some remarks he made on the question of sharia in England. Williams suggested some forms of sharia are “inevitable” and in fact already taking place in England—there are cases where if both parties agree, an imam can arbitrate, just as Orthodox Jewish communities have their own internal religio-legal proceedings, and certain laws other religious groups can claim conscientious objector status on and be absented from. Like Quakers in the US on serving in the Army. Or Roman Catholics in England on certain measures.

Lots of commentary after the jump.

A typical response on the conservative side is this from Ed at Captain’s Quarters:

The Archbishop forgot that Britain operates under a representative government, not a theocracy. The adoption of shari’a would obliterate that system and place the UK under the thumb of imams — a prospect that even British Muslims find distasteful. Khalid Mahmood, a Muslim MP for Labour, noted that Muslims around the world fight to free themselves from such systems, and wondered aloud whether Williams knows what shari’a actually entails.

It’s not the first time a member of the clergy has suggested appeasement and surrender for a strategy against expansion of radical Islam. The endorsement of these strategies by the leader of the Anglican Church is especially disheartening, however. That the leader of a worldwide sect of Christianity thinks of shari’a as “inevitable” should prompt questions about his fitness for that office.

In other words, not very helpful and immediately to the “white flag” meme. Now one might actually want to go and look at Williams said. Here is an interview where he clarifies what he meant. Before I parse some of the Archbishop’s words, I’ll stipulate that I think Williams has shown himself (this isn’t the first time) to not get the media game, particularly in Britain. Though I think what he said can be shown to be far more reasonable than right-wing screeds about the Muslim hordes imposing theocracy, I think it’s right to say he put his foot in his mouth at the very least insofar as nothing can be said on this topic without sending people flying off the handles and responding out of their pre-justified ideological positions.

The ABC says (my emphasis):

ABC It seem unavoidable and indeed as a matter of fact certain provision of Sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law; so it’s not as if we’re bringing in an alien and rival system; we already have in this country a number of situations in which the law the internal law of religious communities is recognised by the law of the land as justified conscientious objections in certain circumstances in providing certain kinds of social relations, so I think we need to look at this with a clearer eye and not imagine either we know exactly what we mean by Sharia and not just associate it with what we read about Saudi Arabia or wherever.

And further:

ABC What a lot of Muslim scholars would say, I think, and I’m no expert on this, is that Sharia is a method rather than a code of law and that where it’s codified in some of the ways that you’ve mentioned in very brutal and inhuman and unjust ways, that’s one particular expression of it which is historically conditioned, not at all what people would want to see as part of the method of trying to make actual the will of God in certain circumstances. So there’s a lot of internal debate within the Islamic community generally about the nature of Sharia and its extent; nobody in their right mind I think would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.

So already a lot of nuance in that statement. One–what kind of Sharia. It’s arguable the ABC is a little naive here. There are strong strains not just in Saudi Arabia but also among right-wing Islamists in England for the kind of theocratic pre-modern order that lie behind such emotional reactions to the word sharia. Reactions both in the Anglo Euro community and the Muslim Euro community.

Two–more importantly only applicable in certain cases, similar to what exists currently in the Orthodox Jewish community (e.g. marriage, divorce, etc.).

Three and this is the biggest one:

ABC It’s very important hat you mention there the word ‘choice’; I think it would be quite wrong to say that we could ever licence so to speak a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general, so that a woman in such circumstances would have to know that she was not signing away for good and all; now this is a matter of detail that I don’t know enough about the detail of the law in the Islamic law in this context; I’m simply saying that there are ways of looking at marital dispute for example within discussions that go on among some contemporary scholars which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them. In some cultural and religious settings they would seem more appropriate.

Now again what might criticize on the grounds of “how can we know real choice will exist?” i.e. How to we know women in particular if they do not want to be judged under a para-legal system, will have the right in real time/practice to safely seek jurisdiction from the democratic secular courts? That’s a legitimate criticism I think, but again this doesn’t exactly sound to me like “waving a white flag for surrender”.

The argument I think on the ABC’s side is that it has to be first and foremost a mutual decision of the participants involved. And again what kind of Sharia law–not something that allows a man to repeat three times “I divorce you” and be done with a woman. And what criteria are going to be employed to decide which Sharia/Sharia-esque laws would be valid and which would not–a la with the Orthodox Community, presumably there are limits to their own in-house jurisprudence.

The other argument in favor is that it is not appeasement but rather a method of trying to create liberty scaled. Again hear me–assuming the Sharia in question is not a brutal illiberal kind.

This may sound like a strange example, but the Girls Scouts in the US (and here in Canada too) is being flooded with Muslim girls. They have had to make “concessions”—if that is the proper term–to the girls in terms of dress, sport activities, even in some places interaction with non-Muslim girls. It’s scaled. It’s more freedom and opportunity for the girls but it does not go so far that their parents cut the thing off and leave them worse off.

It’s tricky has to be granted. There are serious questions, as with any religious-ethnic homogeneous grouping, that they become ghettoized and a pocket of resistance to civil pluralist society may form. But frankly folks this is how immigration has been going on for thousands of years. Check out US cities and their legal codes in say late 19th century or 1910-20s NYC. This is what we have to think of I argue in terms of comparisons. Not 2008 NYC or wherever. Just because everybody is living in the same calendar year (and even that frankly is up for grabs, Muslims date their calendar from the Hajj) or physical space, everybody is not living in the same cultural-inner space or year.

Europe has a very poor record of immigration. Unlike English-speaking North America, the geography is too tight and the primary identities historically have been racial-national. As opposed to a country existing for say a dream anyone can join up with (life, liberty, etc.).

The Captain Quarter’s response positively acknowledges that although there is different cultural-religious years/space, everybody is equal in the eyes of the law because the society has decided so. I don’t and I don’t think the ABC wants that denied. [There is a point that he could have been stronger on this piece to relay fears about the other things he said].

On the other hand, to the degree that the system judges all by a standard that they manifestly are not going to met–and here I’m not talking about illegality I’m talking about cultural nuance/shadings (that’s so important)–it can retard growth and not allow for the pressure of modernization and immigration to be released in its own way, on its own time frame.

If the conservatives actually want this “threat” dealt with, then I’m confused why some of the avenues that could help progress within the communities are denied out of hand. Not even considered.

Let’s face it. Millions of European Muslims are not going to become atheist Hirsh Ali’s overnight. For better and/or worse. That’s just a fact. That being the case, a method of helping a liberalizing Islam take root from within is prudent and wise. There of course is the rub–how to ensure the liberal trends could gain footing/authority in this situation.

But sadly having read through a lot of commentary–British and some American–just about nobody seems to grasp that’s the question to be asking.

Update I:  Ali Eteraz’s thoughts on the dust up.

However, it should be noted that his [Williams’] ideas only seem sensible because he permits “extensive consultation with human rights groups, women’s groups, civil liberties groups and other stakeholders.” This gives me pause.

First of all, there is no guarantee that the real movers and shakers behind Sharia courts will allow that. Did the Talmudic Beth Din courts in UK have to go through a similar approval process? If not, Muslims will say that they don’t need to go through them either.

Assuming that Muslims allow non-Muslims to come in and tell them what their religious should look like, these groups would casually remove any of the patriarchal, misogynist and unfair readings of Islamic Law. Sharia versions of family law will suddenly look and taste no different than English Common Law (in the third-wave feminist version no less).

All this would mean that a Sharia family court would, really, only be Sharia in name. The entire project will become an exercise in duplicity: Muslims pretending to be religious while not really applying the dictates of the law (either that or they’ll have to concede that the reformists and progressives were right).


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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. If these Muslims want to live in the West, then they MUST abide by the laws of land kind enough to take them in.

  2. Jonolan,

    Again it depends on what kind of law. Rowan talked about religious and civil law.

    The civil law has to be the same. Across the board. No argument there.

    But again take the US example of Quakers getting religious CO status to get out of the draft say in Vietnam. Were they not law-abiding?

    The place where the boundary begins & ends is tough. Obviously no polygamy. But if people want to arbitrate–i.e. they both decide as free agents to (big if) go to an arbitrator and the courts de facto rubber stamp–there is a lot of that in the business world, family law, and throughout history religious communities.



  3. From what I understood reading these news yesterday, the Muslim court would be acceptable as “a choice”, a voluntary option for Muslim citizens, but also limited to non-criminal proceedings such as disputes, divorces, settlements etc. within the community of those who choose so. I’m probably in favor of such hybrid courts, and frankly some ethnic groups already have their own courts.

    Integration is not achieved by coercion, nor by extreme permisiveness. Instead, a gradient of compromise and distinct priorities is necessary wherein Muslims of various sorts and ethnic backgrounds will be given a chance to prove themselves as citizens (and patriots, when embraced properly). Still, lenience in these terms must be paralleled with strong measures to ensure proper enculturation in the broad sense. European culture is complex enough to take in all that, and more, as long as we can supplement pluralism with a dose of implicit integral awareness pertaining to specific dynamics in this case: some European cities are not only reaching superdiversity but are also explicitly postmodern in every aspect, from cultural mix to infrastructure… A premodern tribe will hardly find a niche without some real internal change – unless it’s a getto.

  4. If – and it’s a big freaking if – these Shari’a courts are both voluntary by all parties and limited solely to civil matters, then I’m actually all for them and sheepishly retract my rant and plead ignorance. These courts must also NEVER be allowed to render a judgment that violates and national, regional or municipal secular legal code.

    I would definitely want to assure that a Muslim woman could seek divorce and child custody in a real court as opposed to being required to go to Shari’a courts.

  5. Hokai,

    Thanks for the comment.

    And Jonolan,

    You’re right there would have to be some serious safeguards in place. And then Eteraz’s point comes to bear–who decides what those are and how and does it just become basically another version of the same law under a different name/title?



  6. Storm in a tea cup. Sharia will never come to the UK.

  7. Interesting,

    Not one comment on the Jewish courts, at the very least, lets pretend to be consistent.

    Lastly, hate to burst anyone’s bubble but where there is a large congregation of Muslims there are Muslim submitting to a mild form of Islamic Law i.e. Sharia to deny this, is only to delude yourself.

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