Sharia Controversy: A Storm in a Teacup
One of the alarming things about the furor over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice is how a call to “think a little harder” about a complex and important issue in our society has resulted in the exact opposite: a lot of people thinking less and shouting louder. The newspapers and other media have led the way, with their insatiable desire for more blood in the water, and as a result no one has had the time to sit, read, and study before their judgment is sought on the latest cause celebre.
This is not the first time that Dr. Rowan Williams has been presented by the media as inept and unpopular, largely because his statements and lectures do not lend themselves to easy summary. His statements on Islamic Sharia law in England have pressed a very hot button in England, where the longstanding official policy of multiculturalism is rapidly crumbling. We may be at an important tipping point in this regard. The Roman Catholic leader Cardinal Murphy O’Connor is one of those who quickly spoke up on behalf of the new popular consensus, but his insistence that all citizens must “obey the laws of the land” may come back to haunt us if, as some now expect may eventually happen, the distinctive practices of Catholics come to be outlawed by an aggressively secular state.
Many Catholics take the simple facts of Christian persecution in Islamic lands, combined with the typical Muslim rejection of our doctrines of Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Trinity, as proof that Islam is nothing but a demonically inspired heresy, the mortal enemy of Christian truth. This is not the view of Islam taken in Nostra Aetate and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Among the valuable points the Archbishop was trying to make was that Islam is much more complex reality than we think (and much more complex than many Muslims seem to think). Sharia law itself is potentially open to a wide range of interpretations and applications. Dr. Williams was challenging Muslim jurists who do not accept the “universalist doctrine of human rights” to find other ways of expressing and defending human dignity compatible with their own tradition.
At one level the Archbishop was saying little more than that some place might be found for elements of Sharia under English law akin to provisions already made for Orthodox Jews and Catholics. In that sense the whole fuss was a storm in a teacup. There was no suggestion of parallel jurisdictions: the Muslim courts would function in a supplementary and subordinate way. At another level, Dr. Williams was raising fascinating questions about the theology of law itself, and the nature of community – how do we constitute our social identities? Such questions need to be raised and discussed in an intelligent manner.
The reaction to his lecture, however, was dominated by fear – the fear that “Englishness” and Western civilization itself is under threat, intensified by the obscure but accurate sense that the foundations of that civilization have already long been undermined by its leading political and intellectual figures. That fear would be a good thing if it caused the nation to wake up to its real Christian and humanistic heritage, but I somehow doubt that things will play out like that. Sometimes I have a fear of my own: that we will unite against what we take to be a common enemy, only to find ourselves defending a state that is increasingly totalitarian and anti-Christian in its spirit and effects.
You can read the lecture here.