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Food for the Poor Godspy.com: Faith at the Edge


Austen Ivereigh | 02.11.08


Defending the Archbishop: It’s All in the Details

Photo Credit: Paul Keller

My defense of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s proposals for Britain to accommodate sharia law omitted to mention that the devil is in the detail, as an excellent Reuters report points out, and as Dr. Williams himself indicated. But the recent press, calming now after the storm, confirms the point I was making: as Tom Heneghan, religion editor for Reuters, notes, “the archbishop clearly stated in his speech on Thursday” that he ruled out barbaric punishments such as those visited on hapless Saudis, and “only wanted some aspects of Muslim personal law, as a way to accommodate Muslims who felt torn between their Islamic and British identities.”

Yet in her lengthy response to my GodSpy post, Kathleen Lundquist tries to maintain that Dr. Williams “does not seem to recognize that in most Muslim states under sharia, people who harbor opinions contrary to the majority are not tolerated or respected; they are exiled, forced to convert to the majority opinion, or summarily killed”.

Not only does he recognize it, but he mentions it more than once in order to condemn it. Lundquist is simply wrong on this point.

In case the summary killing of apostates seems a rather unlikely prospect in contemporary Britain, especially given that Dr. Williams is talking about arbitration of marital and certain property disputes, she warns, in language that would make a British tabloid proud, that “when sharia gets a foot in the door, it bursts all the way in and takes over”.

Recognize that Muslims might have their own mortgages, in other words, and pretty soon you have thieves having their hands cut off on the streets of Leicester. Let the imams loose on marriage arbitrations, and it won’t be long before piles of stones clutter the suburbs in Bradford, ready to be flung at adulterous women. It may look like a property mediation, but just you wait: they’ll be taking over Parliament and hanging apostates over the Thames before you can say the word fatwah.

Scary stuff. Our civilization rests on fragile foundations indeed.

Beyond the scary stuff, however, Lunquist’s substantial point is that no accommodation of Islamic jurisprudence is possible without subverting the Judeo-Christian tradition of law in our democracies. This because Muslim jurisprudence threatens “the concepts which come to us from the Christian revelation and which form the basis of Western civilization.”

But rather than tell us precisely how sharia law on mortgages and inheritance threaten Christian concepts – and it would be genuinely interesting to compare the two-- she gives us as an example from history: the Caliphate in pre-medieval Spain. In Cordoba, she says, non-Muslims had second-class (or dhimmi) status.

Now just a minute. In the context of the time, the Caliphate was remarkable for its degree of official tolerance of non-Muslim faiths, soon to be smashed when the Christians drove the Moors from Spain and implemented a Catholic state pur et dur.

Let’s not forget the expulsion under the Catholic Kings of the Jews and Muslims in 1492, or the expulsion of the moriscos (Moorish converts to Christianity) a few decades later. Jews and Muslims were not second-class citizens in Catholic Spain; they were not citizens at all; they were shown the door. Or if they wanted to stay, they were forced to convert, and were tortured or expelled if they hadn’t converted completely enough.

So if the proof of the incompatibility of Islamic juridical concepts with Christian concepts such as equality, respect for others, tolerance, human rights, etc., lies in the Caliphate, one would have to conclude from what followed that there is a far stronger case for Catholicism to be deemed incompatible with those same concepts.

Lest this turn into a yah-booh exchange about which states – Muslim or Christian – have been more intolerant of minorities in history, can we not agree that in a pre-Enlightenment era the notion that people of a different religion enjoyed the same rights is largely unthinkable? The principle of cuius regio, cuius religio obtained almost everywhere: in other words, what we now call “national security” was only deemed to be possible when all worshipped God the same way. Even if, in more relaxed times in history, both Christians and Muslims allowed each other latitude, once the dangers appeared on horizon, the scapegoating and demonization of the other quickly took hold. (And should we be tempted to feel that this is something that belongs to former ages, it is worth remembering the rounding-up of Japanese Californians after Pearl Harbour, or the McCarthyite witch-hunt during the Cold War.)

As any Huguenot expelled from France—or any Catholic priest hung, drawn and quartered for saying Mass in Elizabethan England—would tell you from the grave, the denial of minority religious rights persisted far into the modern era.

The notion of equality of rights for all, independent of religious belief, only came of age when Protestants and Catholics in Europe had fought each other to a standstill in the seventeenth century. Enlightenment notions of citizenship and civil rights, coupled with nation states, then offered a new basis for belonging – one which, incidentally, was resisted by the Church.

Unsurprisingly, many areas of the world which have not passed through that experience continue to cling to pre-modern notions. Yet there are Muslims who maintain – as does Hizb ut-Tahrir in response to the furor over Dr. Williams – that Muslim respect for minority rights is at least as great or greater than that of Christians, and that western claims ring hollow in this regard. I do not agree. But to describe Muslim history as one of constant oppression of minorities is as false as believing that Christian history is one of constant tolerance. If you doubt that, read Zachary Karabell’s fascinating history of Muslim, Jewish and Christian coexistence.

What could be sustained – there is evidence to the contrary, but not a lot – is that sharia as the official law of the land is incompatible with democracy, because when coupled with the state it is essentially theocratic. But the same could be said of any situation in which the state enforces religious teaching.

It is a fair point, as Lundquist says, that Muslims have no Magisterium, and therefore who is to say what version of sharia is the official one? But the same could be said of Judaism, Hinduism, Anglican and Orthodox Christianity; is that a reason to deny these religions a reasonable accommodation, within the civil law, of their subordinate jurisdictions? Anglicans will be surprised to learn that their ecclesiastical law is dangerous because they lack a pope; and the more Protestant of them may be tempted to point out that it is precisely because there is a Magisterium in the Catholic Church – an authority to which Catholics are beholden as “dual” citizens – that Catholics in the UK were for so long denied their place in the national sun.

Which is why it is surprising that Lundquist should charge Muslims with having this “dual identity as a citizen and as a believer within the community of the faithful”, adding that “there is no reason to suppose such a thing, or to assume that it provides a benefit to society”. She articulates, in those lines, a rigid Positivist-secularist view, one which would make the Jacobins proud and popes shudder.

Surely Catholics have precisely such a “dual identity”, and are proud of it? We pay our taxes (me to Gordon Brown, Lundquist to George Bush) while reading our encyclicals; we sue our neighbours in the civil courts and dissolve our marriages in the ecclesiastical tribunal; we proclaim the dignity of the unborn and march against Roe v. Wade (at least, she might; it would be a bit pointless in London) while obeying the law in as much as we are citizens. Dual identity? It’s nicely spelled out in St Augustine’s City of God, as well as in Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931).

Even more surprising - given that this is the whole burden of his lecture - Lundquist questions whether Dr. Williams is “advocating respect for religion as such”. He “seems to argue”, she says, “for a postmodern multiculturalism in which truths (small t) are discovered in religious communities and then incorporated into a common cultural framework”.

It is better to deal with what he does argue, not what he seems to argue; and what he argues is the polar opposite of postmodern multiculturalism. Matthew Parris, who objects in The Times to Dr. Williams from a conservative secularist standpoint, nevertheless grasps his point that his is more of a medieval (and Parris does not mean that word as a compliment) idea:

“Dr. Williams's ideas really represent the wilder fringes of a bigger idea: communitarianism. Communitarianism can come in a surplice, a yarmulka or from a minaret and is all the more dangerous because armed with a divine rather than a local loyalty. It almost always proves a repressive and reactionary force, fearful of competitors, often anti-science, sometimes sceptical of knowledge itself, and grudging towards the State.”

The word “communitarianism” is not a bad one to describe the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture, although it is not the parody Parris presents. It is essentially a French concept, and a (from a secularist standpoint) negative one: communitarisme is the opposite of what the French uphold as laïcité – namely, freedom of the public square from religious interference.

As the Catholic columnist Charles Moore points out, there is an irony in President Sarkozy’s daring abandonment of laïcité in a speech to cardinals in Rome before Christmas – he has set up a French Council of Muslim Religion, so the French state can have a “structured dialogue” with Islam – while in Britain we seem now to have assumed the tenets of laïcité even while remaining, officially, a Christian state.

The real purpose of Lundquist’s riposte is disclosed in her quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a return to the source of the concepts of human dignity and freedom in Christian theology. But it is precisely because these have roots in Christian theology that the Second Vatican Council in its groundbreaking declaration of religious liberty recognized that the Church – and with it, Catholic teaching - cannot be imposed by the state purely on the grounds that it is true. Dignitatis Humanae recognized the respect for consciences implicit in contemporary democracy.

Lundquist and I would agree that there are limits to freedom of conscience and expression – there is a common good which must be defended; minority rights cannot be asserted at the expense of that common good; human life is one of those values that cannot be left to the vote (I hope she includes the death penalty in with abortion in this respect) etc. etc.

But it would be sad if she did not agree with the Church that Muslims have rights, along with members of other faiths and no faiths, as any other citizens.

And if she does, then she needs to advance a better case for resisting the idea that those rights should include the recognition, to an obviously limited degree, of a semi-autonomous subordinate religious jurisdiction in so far as this does not subvert or restrict the law of the land. Such a recognition would not, could not, compel any Muslim to violate the law of the UK, and would not, could not, restrict the access of Muslims to that law, because in so far as they are citizens they are as beholden to that law as anyone else.

This is why the scary stuff from north Africa has no relevance to this debate. There, the attempt has been to impose sharia as the law of the land, through violence, in order to create a “Muslim state”, just as Ferdinand and Isabella sought to create a “Catholic state” in post-1492 Spain. The fact that zealots in Nigeria impose sharia in ways utterly incompatible with modern rights no more proves that wrongness of recognizing some traditions of sharia in Britain than it would be to argue that Franco, Salazar and the crusading papacies of the Middle Ages prove you cannot allow the accommodation of some Catholic canon law fora in modern western democracies. By Lundquist’s argument, Britain should not recognize the Orthodox Jewish Beth Din (as it does) because the Zionists who will follow in their stead will soon turn us into another state of Israel.

There is simply no evidence that to recognize Muslim arbitration mechanisms which currently exist in the UK would be any more problematic than it is to recognize the Beth Din. In the absence of that evidence, it is safe to give a name to such reactions – that of Islamophobia.

Having mistakenly described Dr.. Williams as ignorant of atrocities under sharia and of advocating a faithless multiculturalism, she ends by wondering if I am aware of the crisis in the Anglican communion, going on to suggest that the Archbishop of Canterbury is responsible for the heterodoxy and schism currently afflicting that communion.

Is it not a little barrel-scraping to end an essay knocking Dr. Williams on sharia by saying, “anyway he’s a heretic and schismatic on the issue of homosexuality and women priests” and then to wonder whether I’ve read about the Anglican crisis?

As it happens, I was writing about that crisis back in 2004 (see my Commonweal article) and have followed it keenly ever since, and have discussed it with Dr. Williams on more than one occasion. And if she holds the Archbishop of Canterbury responsible for ECUSA’s ordination of Gene Robinson - an act which he strenuously opposed, along with the other Anglican primates, as a quick Google will reveal – then she has rather badly missed her target. Valiantly, often very much alone, Dr.. Williams has sought to hold his fractious Communion together by proposing an ecclesiology which she and I would both recognize as quasi-Catholic (see, for example, the Windsor Report which he commissioned). He has not succeeded, as he would be the first to admit; but then, trying to hold together the Anglican Church is like trying, as Simon Bolivar said of Latin-American emancipation, “to plough the sea”.

Dr. Williams is an arresting theologian, a brilliant thinker, a courageous stirrer of the pot and one of the few people in modern Britain willing to risk the lynch mob to speak out of deep Christian tradition. He may not always get it right. And in this case his speech was made without a proper communications strategy, for which I take him and his advisers to task on BBC Radio.

His lecture is not invulnerable to criticism, as he by now surely realizes; the devil really will be in the detail. But it still sails far above the scorn which his critics have tried, without success, to fling at it.

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