The Archbishop of Canterbury is facing severe criticism for his remarks about accommodating Sharia Law in the UK. Contrary to popular belief he has not called for changes to the law, but I still disagree strongly with his position.
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I’ll bet Dr Williams is taken aback at the response his comments has generated, and I have to say, I think a lot of people are overreacting. Obviously, I make no secret of the fact that I disagree with him and I’ll argue my point, but heckling the poor man outside his Church? Calling for his resignation? Not even remotely called for, and nothing more than an attempt to limit his right to hold an opinion and express his views.
At this stage it’s probably worth pointing out that there are — at least — two separate groups who’re being critical of his position, and it’s not the secularists and the liberals who’re calling for his resignation. Those voices are raised from within his own Church, and they’re not objecting on general grounds to religious accommodation in the law, they’re objecting very specifically to accommodation of religions that aren’t theirs. Needless to say, I disagree with those people at least strongly as I do Dr Williams.
In fact, on a re-reading his lecture, I realise just how badly misrepresented by the media Dr Williams was. I’m not saying I agree with him; far from it, but I don’t think he was calling for wholesale modification of British law, either. He makes some subtle points, and his words are, at times, ambiguous (one might say disingenuous,) but there is certainly a way to interpret what he said as nothing more controversial than “just because the law gives someone a right, doesn’t mean we should necessarily force them to exercise that right at all times.” That much is obviously true.
So, surely true enough is fair enough? Well, yes, but the assumption that someone might not want to exercise their rights is a dangerous one to establish legally, and an even more dangerous one to nationally consolidate through the establishment of local courts around the country, which (will inevitably) presume the complicity of the entire local population. Williams talks about these supplementary-jurisdictions as being purely voluntary, but offers no suggestions as to how to ensure duress of any kind does not play a role. Matthew Parris puts it excellently, in his piece in The Times:
Faiths capture people. I do not mean this disparagingly. So of course do patriotisms, ideologies, families. But a religion, properly understood, makes profound claims on an individual and community, quite unlike the demands of a golf club. It involves the use of public places and public services, the subordination of the individual’s will; and may demand that he subordinate his spouse’s and children’s wills too. Hence our unease about duress, and the completeness of “consent”.
Dr Williams, in a welter of words, makes no serious attempt to resolve this. Those who read his speech properly will see that his entire argument turns upon the freedom of the group member to “opt out” of the “supplementary jurisdiction” and choose British law instead. But repressive faith groups make it culturally difficult – sometimes well-nigh impossible – for a member to opt out. This gives them the very togetherness and focus that Dr Williams wants to foster.
A religion is more than a collection of rules and habits: it is a complete moral and philosophical system with deep claims upon the inner and outer life of the adherent, from cradle, through schooling, and beyond. The rules it lays down – the private laws – are of a more commanding kind than the rules of Scrabble or the High Peak Hunt because they are morally joined-up: joined with a loyalty beyond the State; joined within an overarching faith and its explanations of the Universe.
How can we expect someone who’d been raised, educated and governed according to certain cultural and religious prescriptions to realise, when it matters, that they are able to “opt-out” of all that? Everyone they know believes and acts a certain way; they have been raised to do the same. They might not even know there is a wider law guaranteeing them greater liberty. Paris, charitably, talks about religions as providing “togetherness” and “focus,” and I dare-say he’s right, but the other side of that coin is obedience, conformity and acquiescence; not traits that I believe will lead to people looking outside the system for redress.
Put simply, religion and governance are a bad mix at any level. Religions are, by their very nature, strongly ideological, and strongly ideological governments, religious or otherwise, fall all too easily — some might say, inevitably — into oppression of dissenting views.
Additionally, and as I’ve said before, there are real risks with introducing even small-scale supplemental jurisdictions in the context of the current British population. By granting legal status to aspects of cultural codes, we run the risk of granting a veneer of legitimacy to the entirety of those codes, including elements that the majority find abhorrent, and by granting already insular communities even greater autonomy, we don’t increase social cohesion on a wide scale, so much as splinter into a series of small, independent communities with little in the way of commonality to bind them into a cohesive whole.