Inequality under the law

CanterburyArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave an interview to the BBC this week that is sending shockwaves throughout England. Here’s a relevant excerpt from the full interview, in which he advocates that aspects of sharia law be introduced to England:

[A]n approach to law which simply said, ‘There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts’. I think that’s a bit of a danger.

Being that Williams did attack, as he admits, a pillar on which Western liberal democracy stands, all hell is breaking loose across the pond. And unlike some previous instances, it seems that the coverage of Williams’ remarks has not exaggerated his views.

Still, whenever reading a story about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks, I suggest going to the source rather than taking what you hear at face value. The full interview, in which he says he’s “no expert” in Muslim law but goes on to talk about it at length and in a surprisingly direct fashion, is here. Most of the early write-ups were simple, straightforward accounts of what Williams said, such as this one from the BBC:

Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4′s World at One that the UK has to “face up to the fact” that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.

Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

Much of the follow-up reporting is simply looking at how Williams’ remarks are being taken by, well, most everybody. Religion reporter Ruth Gledhill of the Times (U.K.) cowrote this follow-up with Phillip Webster:

The Archbishop of Canterbury came under fierce attack last night from the Government, his own Church and other religions after he advocated the adoption of parts of Sharia, or Islamic law, in Britain.

Leaders of all the main political parties made clear that they did not accept Dr Rowan Williams’s assertion that the incorporation of some aspects of Sharia was “unavoidable”.

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, condemned his comments as “muddled and unhelpful” and one senior bishop said that he was “surprised and concerned” by Dr Williams’s remarks.

Say what you want about the Archbishop, he sure knows how to create news. It will be interesting to see where the story goes from here. In his interview, he said that all the brutality, inhumanity and unjustness associated with sharia law is just “one particular expression of it which is historically conditioned.” Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan asks some good questions in light of that view:

Who would decide which sharia laws would apply and which would not? Would Muslims be able to choose between the civil and the sharia courts? Could defendants appeal to civil courts if they thought a sharia court decision violated their basic rights?

Ruth Gledhill wrote up a column headlined “Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?.” She says that’s exactly what many of her readers have asked her throughout the day. (And reading through various British media outlet forums, I think she’s being kind.) She expresses surprise that Williams, who normally obfuscates a bit, was so “uncharacteristically clear” about his views of sharia law. She notes that no Muslim organization has called for what Williams has. She quotes one of the church’s bishops, someone who Williams criticized recently for bringing up the issue of “no-go” areas for non-Muslims in England:

The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, responded: ‘English law is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and, in particular, our notions of human freedoms derive from that tradition. In my view, it would be simply impossible to introduce a tradition, like sharia into this corpus without fundamentally affecting its integrity.’

Gledhill ended her piece with a frightening story:

A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a woman who works in an advocacy role for Muslim women in an area that, quite independently of the Bishop of Rochester, she described as a ‘no-go area’ for non-Muslims. Her clients were women in the process of being sectioned into mental health units in the NHS. This woman, who for obvious reasons begged not to be identified, told me: ‘The men get tired of their wives. Or bored. Or maybe the wife objects to her daughter being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. Or maybe she starts wearing western clothes.There can be many reasons. The women are sent for asssessment to a hospital. The GP referring them is Muslim. The psychiatrist assessing them is Muslim and male. I have sat in these assessments where the psychiatrist will not look the woman patient in the eye because she is a woman. Can you imagine! A psychiatrist refusing to look his patient in the eye? The woman speaks little or no English. She is sectioned. She is divorced. There are lots of these women in there, locked up in these hospitals. Why don’t you people write about this?’

My interlocuter went very red and almost started to cry. Instead, she began shouting at me. I was a member of the press. ‘You must write about this,’ she begged.

‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘Not unless you become a whistle-blower. Or give me some evidence. Or something.’

She shook her head. ‘I can’t be identified,’ she said. ‘I would be killed. And so would the women.’

So there you have it. After weeks of wondering what to do, inspired by the Archbishop, I’ve taken her word that she is telling the truth, respected her anonymity, and written it anyway.

When anyone calls for the inclusion of sharia law in the well-established legal system of England’s liberal democracy, that’s a huge political and religious story. When the person calling for Muslim law is the leader of a large Christian church communion, it’s hard to understate the gravity of the situation. This story has huge implications in Britain and beyond and I look forward to seeing some quality reportage and analysis out of it. Please let us know if you see any particularly good or bad stories.

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  • Steve

    Thanks, Mollie. Look at his face. Should Alzheimer’s be considered a possibility. I’m not kidding. He is confused and “managing,” as early onset patients do. He needs to be tested.

  • Raspberry Rabbit

    This is one of those stories which will become clearer once the feathers have ceased to fly. Ruth Gledhill’s example of the woman sectioned through the intervention of a series of male muslim professionals who share her husband’s ‘world view’ is horrifying. One balance it sounds like a Gledhillism – probably not true and designed to inflame rather than to illuminate. On the other hand it should be verified but God knows how. I’m about to be married to somebody who works in Mental Health in the UK. From what I have gleaned over the years the checks and balances would have seemed to be in place to catch something like this in process but what do I know? I shall ask.

  • Eric Chaffee

    Steve — see what you believe, or want to believe. Maybe the guy is clever like a fox. Perhaps he is using a form of distraction to redirect attention from other issues. Or, maybe he is sincere in attempting to recognize the presence of a significant and burgeoning number of adherents of another way of thinking.

    And this may be a stark way of drawing distinction between these dramatic differences between two radical approaches to law. Giving people a choice of venue might expose one system as decidedly inhumane over another.

    The contrast is striking. Just as the tension between justice and mercy, such a choice would/could expose sharia as decidedly disadvantageous for an injured party, but preferred by the other side, for example. I do think Archie is onto something here. It sure makes for more substantive viewing than endless election cycles.


  • Mike Hickerson

    Has there been any indication of Muslims who have come to Britain precisely to escape shariah? I have heard many Muslims in the U.S. express their appreciation for the separation of church and state. If there are similar sentiments in the UK (though I know that, technically, they don’t have separation of church and state), then there may be Muslims who respond to Williams’ comments with dismay. It seems that Williams is sticking his nose into another religion’s culture wars, where he can do nothing but create damage.

    Further, how will his comments be received in, say, Nigeria, where his fellow Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola is facing the very real situation of shariah law being enforced in large portions of his country. This can hardly help ease tensions within the Anglican communion.

  • rw

    Good point Mike – In Nigeria, the roots of the Sharia conflict started in the civil and family courts.

  • Chip


    Your readers are atune to Ruth Gledhill’s tabloid style (seen comment 2 above), so why aren’t you casting your net more widely when you look for reactions in the English press?

    If you haven’t seen, take a look at Andrew Brown’s commentary on the Archbishop’s interview in the Guardian.

    Brown gives an apposite example of wheat the Achbishp was talking about:

    What he means by sharia is something altogether more benign, and closer to the kind of arrangements already made for talmudic law in Britain. He wants disputes between believers to be regulated, where both agree, by religious laws. It is hard to construct a principled reason why this privilege should be denied to Muslims when it is extended to Orthodox Jews, whose networks of religious courts are perfectly compatible with English law and generally recognised.

    Is not the press coverage of the interview another example of the media not getting religion, particularly when the religious leader speaks thoughtfully rather than in sound bites?


  • C. Wingate

    It’s interesting to follow this on TitusOneNine, where there is a link to the actual interview. Part of the problem is that Williams’s speaking style simply doesn’t suffer soundbiting well, because he isn’t so much obfuscatory as given to rather complex expressions.

    The crucial business is in RW’s last response, which the Beeb article makes rather a hash of:

    People may be surprised but I hope that that surprise will be modified when they think about the general question of how the law and religious community, religious principle are best and fruitfully accommodated. What we don’t want I think is either a stand-off where the law squares up to religious consciences over something like abortion or indeed by forcing a vote on some aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the commons as it were a secular discourse saying ‘we have no room for conscientious objections’; we don’t want that, we don’t either I think want a situation where because there’s no way of legally monitoring what communities do, making them part of public process, people do what they like in private in such a way that that becomes a way of intensifying oppression within a community and that happens; that happens. So how does the law engage critically and intelligently – the law of the land – with the custom, the imperatives, the principles of distinctive religious communities? It’s a large question, much larger than the question about Islam and I think it’s a question which the Church can quite reasonably be thinking about.

    The subtext of this passage is that he sees British law being turned in an aggressively secularist direction. He wouldn’t be the first to say that.

    It’s a very difficult interview to report, because it’s almost impossible to recast it in small chunks without transforming it into some that is far more inflammatory than what he actually said. Gledhill’s first piece was reasonable; her editorial was a real problem, and not only because it calls into question her objectivity. This criticism summarizes the hysteria succinctly:

    What I have determined from Gledhill’s piece and the other articles and posts I’ve read is twofold. First, no one has actually read the full text of the archbishop’s speech. Second, people are scared crapless of Muslims.

  • Greg Popcak

    Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali’s comments in the face of ABC’s statement is a perfect example of the importance of the Catholic Church’s effort to get the EU’s constitution to recognize the Christian roots of European (and by association all of Western)civilization.

    The ABC’s statement, combined with Gledhill’s story, is a perfect example of the folly of the EU’s decision to spurn that advice.

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  • Darel

    rw makes an excellent point in saying

    In Nigeria, the roots of the Sharia conflict started in the civil and family courts.

    I suspect what lies behind the very possibility of considering the introduction of sharia family law into Western societies like the UK and Canada is the rapid demise of traditional family law over the past 40 years — and particularly over the past 15 years — regarding homosexual marriage, polygamy/polyamory, no-fault divorce, ‘blended’ families, assisted reproductive technologies, and the like.

    Western societies are remarkably confused about what they think of the family. Only in such a cultural circumstance could someone as prominent as the Archbishop of Canterbury make his suggestion. Perhaps it will serve to begin clarifying our own thinking, however. And that would be all to the good.

  • Ananta Androscoggin

    “If you allow one, you have to allow all of them…”

    Which other religious court-systems might doing what he suggests cause to also be allowed?

    Would the world have to allow the old Holy Inquisition to go back to its old habits of destroying “heretics” and non-Roman Catholics?

    Let’s bring back Irish Brehon Law?

    Who else is out there with a “One Wayism”TM legal system meant to enforce the authority of its religious leadership?

    Anybody writing about these possibilities?

  • Michael

    Which other religious court-systems might doing what he suggests cause to also be allowed?

    As he said in the speech–and what Gledhill didn’t bother to follow-up on–is that there is already room in the British system for Orthodox Jews to apply Talmudic law to conflicts, including marital conflicts. And there is no question that Anglicanism has influenced British law, which has accommodated the role of Anglicanism in British life. His suggestion was that maybe Muslims be allowed to have the same religious privilege as Orthodox Jews.

    Even in the U.S., Orthodox Jews can take disputes–including divorce disputes–to Talmudic tribunals. And the decisions of those tribunals are given weight in traditional courts. Courts in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey routinely honor agreements and decisions that were reached under Talmudic law. The Amish have a less organized system, but within those communties, a system that is respected by outside authorities is allowed to flourish.

  • Jerry

    I want to thank those who posted about the relationship between Orthodox Jews/Talmudic law and Muslims/Sharia. Knowing that casts an entirely different light on what is going on.

    Part of the uproar in the media reflects the entire issue of how we feel about the developments and struggles in the Islamic world. And to many is an issue.

  • almondwine

    My understanding is that British common law already makes provisions for religious differences. Maybe it’s my fault for not following this story closely enough, but it seems to me that there’s been far too much emphasis on Williams’ comments and not nearly enough discussion about the status quo of British law and whether its existing protections for religious practice should be expanded. This is as much a legal story as it is a religious story.

  • Rick Ritchie

    I agree with almondwine. The original headlines I had read about the archbishop made it sound as if he was calling for everyone to be subjected to at least parts of the sharia law. That is very different from allowing muslims the option of using sharia law under the broader authority of the British legal system. But it would be nice to know how radical an idea this is or isn’t, given current law.

    In the United States, many people agree to resolve differences through binding arbitration which can be strucured in all sorts of ways. Is this something other than a different flavor of arbitration? What are the limits of what it could impose?

  • Karen Vaughan

    We have Catholic canon law in the United States. If a man and woman want their marriage annulled, they can petition, have canon lawyers, make their agreement. Likewise with a Beit Din and Jewish participants. These systems don’t force the end of a marriage in civil terms and partners who opt out can rely upon civil law.

    Is there a difference in what the Archbishop proposes?

  • pen brynisa

    FYI, the Archbishop’s office has issued a press release.

    In part, it says:

    The Archbishop made no proposals for sharia in either the lecture or the interview, and certainly did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law.

    Instead, in the interview, rather than proposing a parallel system of law, he observed that “as a matter of fact certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law” . When the question was put to him that: “the application of sharia in certain circumstances – if we want to achieve this cohesion and take seriously peoples’ religion – seems unavoidable?”, he indicated his assent.

    They also provide a link to both Dr. Williams’ speech and the BBC interview.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m puzzled by how the Archbishop is all decked out in Yellow. This is not a normal liturgical color in Western Christendom. Is this meant to send a message about his lack of courage in defending Christianity and Christian culture and law????
    I always love it when a prominent person–whether an archbishop or a movie star– admits they know nothing about a certain topic (like sharia law) but then, knowing their bully pulpit in the media will send their opinions far and wide, arrogantly use their position to spout inanities and ignorance instead of humbly shutting up in the face of their admitted ignorance.

  • Jon Kennedy

    Like several others I immediately thought of the Amish in America, Native Americans in reservations, and other groups that have access to their own traditional or ethnic systems of laws. Since the topic here is often what’s been overlooked or not mentioned in press coverage, it’s disappointing that not even a nod to this possibly parallel situation was made in the coverage. But perhaps at a higher level the Archbishop himself should have reminded his listeners of these parallels in Western jurisprudence.

  • William

    The coverage really doesn’t “get religion” or law by ignoring all the other ethnic court structures in Western countries.

    I took a whole class on American Indian law. The biggest issue if I remember correctly was determining jurisdiction (e.g., do the Indian courts have jurisdiction over a non-Indian who murdered an Indian in a reservation?) but that shouldn’t be as big an issue for sharia law.

    If the United States can handle these alternative courts, I think the UK would not have a problem.

  • William

    BTW, if anyone is interested, in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, the Supreme Court ruled that a tribal court does not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.

  • Stephen A.

    However it was intended, the ABC’s comments have been widely interpreted as a surrender to radical Islamic law, and quite dangerous.

    Part of me wants to believe it was reported badly, since the same man who is actively supporting the gay lifestyle within his ranks of priests – going so far as holding secret “gay masses” and presiding over the breakdown of the Anglican Communion – can hardly be the same man who would allow a religious system of law that would bring forced marriages, polygamy or perhaps even the stoning of those very same gays. Can he?

    More condemnation, from Lord Carey and others: (in which the Dean of Southwick calls those who oppose the ABC’s comments “intolerant.”)

    The Beeb, being ever so helpful (as always) tries to explain Sharia law in a sidebar-type story online: I believe it soft-pedals some conroversial issues, such as the death penalty for conversion and the death penalty for other crimes. This, after all, is the network that refused to use the word “terrorist” in relation to the Muslim terrorists, so I question all of their interpretions here.

    Even political leaders are weighing in. UK Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has described the idea of the UK adopting aspects of Sharia law as a “recipe for division – not unity”:

  • Darel

    The Archbishop claims that sharia is not “an alien and rival system” of law and morality in Britain. Is he correct or not?

    Simply because a society accepts some parallel “traditional or ethnic systems of law” (per Jon Kennedy) does not mean that the addition of one more is irrelevant. The debate is precisely over the present and especially future implications of the marked expansion of sharia in the UK.

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  • Monte Sahlin

    Allowing the possibility for Muslims to have a Sharia court settle certain kinds of prescribed cases (defined in law) would be no different than the way mediation and arbitration is used as alternative legal processes in the U.S. The results could still be appealed to higher courts of the regular kind.

    To devout Christians, the mainstream Muslim understanding of Sharia law is not all that shocking or unfamiliar. People who are serious about faith often have very similar ideas about acceptable behavior, etc. The news media has generally poisoned the minds of the largely uneducated masses (uneducated about religion) on this topic with emphasis on both the most extreme instances and some reports that are simply fiction.

    The New Testament includes a passage where Paul instructs the early believers not to take each other to the law courts, but to resolve their differences within the the community of faith. This has led many Christian denominations for long periods of time to maintain alternative judicial processes which believers are encouraged to use instead of filing suit in the secular courts. In general, legal scholars have recognized this as a good thing if for no other reason than it reduces the caseload of the courts.

    The negative reaction here is way over the top. It simply shows how out of touch with religion some people have become. If you have any respect for culture, historic culture or the culture of others, then you owe it to yourself to get an education in religion instead of making foolish statements.

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