Rowan Williams and Sharia law
The Archbishop of Canterbury says that the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK "seems unavoidable". 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. He says Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".
To be fair, he stresses that "nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well".
But Dr Williams says the argument that "there's one law for everybody... I think that's a bit of a danger".
One law for everyone is of course the foundation of the very possibility of law in the sense that we understand it. Different laws for different sections or estates of people - as was the case in the ancien regime, when, for example, the Jewish kehilla was responsible for the legal regulation of Jewish subjects - is something that was done away with in the post-1776 era as the radically modern doctrine of equality before the law spread across the globe, mostly through violent revolutions which overthrew the ancien regime, emancipating estates like the Jews and the serfs. The survival of formal inequality before the law in places like apartheid South Africa is rightly thought of as an outrage against modern notions of justice.
Of course, there have long been political philosophies attacking the mis-fit between law and personal morality. Anarchists, for example, think that, in the "stark alternative" between morality and "state loyalty" (to use Williams' phrase), there is no contest - a position I have considerable sympathy for.
But Williams is not talking about personal morality or natural law, he is talking about "cultural loyalty". And here, surely, we are on very dangerous ground. What are we to say if a given population, for example, claims that marital rape or female genital mutilation or polygamy is the morality of their "culture", and that given the "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty" they choose cultural loyalty? Surely we should contest that right, rather than say it is "inevitable" that there need to be plural legal frameworks.
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