Rowan Williams and Sharia law 2

Then again, to treat individuals solely on the basis of their presumed religious identity is reductive - and patronising - in the extreme. Is the identity of 'Muslim' - whether adopted voluntarily or attributed by others - to be privileged above other identities - including that of British citizen? And what about those who are identified as Muslims but wish to have nothing to do with a legal code which, for all its trumpeted benefits, is undoubtedly patriarchal and illiberal?

As I argued here, many of Williams' recent statements reflect the same kind of envy/fascination with Islam to be found in the writings of other erstwhile liberal christians such as Madeleine Bunting, Karen Armstrong and William Dalrymple, in which a bend-over-backwards spirit of 'understanding' towards other religionists (however illiberal) overrides any lingering commitment to universal liberal principles. The Archbishop's statement today - like his argument last week for a new, improved law of blasphemy - is yet more evidence of his dangerous political naivety and further ammunition for those who wish to see religion's privileged role in the public square reduced.
More commentary: Shuggy, Mick H, R Joseph Hoffman, Ophelia B 1 & 2, Pickled Politics. And more: Francis Sedgemore.


Anonymous said…
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Martha Nussbaum in which she explains the problem in India's Constitution, which allows for religious communities to regulate certain matters according to their own laws. The two interesting points about what she says, (for me) are:

First, that the British colonialist rule had encouraged this "ghettoization" as a sort of "divide and rule" policy;

Second, that this sort of policy decelerates reform. The main victims of this slowness are the women. Considering Williams' recorded view of the benign reach of British colonialism, I wonder if his current recommendations are just an extension of this British preference. Whatever his motivation, his suggestions are backward-looking, male-centred, and against modernization and reform:

"Stephen Crittenden: Just coming back to some of the problems related with religion in India though, something I knew nothing about: you write at length about how India's constitution allowed systems of religious law in areas like marriage and divorce and inheritance, to coexist with the secular law, and it wasn't just Sharia law for Muslims, either, and that this has led to major problems in relation particularly to sexual equality in India.

Martha Nussbaum: Yes. At the time of the founding, there was an effort to get a common code of civil law; commercial law and criminal law had already been made uniform by the British through the whole nation. But there were these plural systems of civil law that were run by the various religions. The British liked that as a kind of policy of divide and rule, and so at the founding, people wanted to do away with that but they couldn't quite get the support for that, because Muslims were very afraid if their really quite dignified and ancient system of property and family law was taken from them, that would be a way of denigrating them. So eventually, the four major religions, that is Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Christians, were allowed to keep, not only in the area of family law but also in the area of property and inheritance, these separate systems, which doesn't mean that there are separate courts, but it means that the parliament passes laws in these areas that apply only to certain communities
Now what that leads to is a tremendous slowness in reform, I mean religion becomes bureaucratised, the religions have to get together, propose a change, and then they have to go and move parliament. So the slowness can be shown by the fact that Christian women in India got the right to divorce on grounds of cruelty only in the year 2001. It took about 50 years to get the Catholics and the Protestants together and get all the male clerics to agree that this was an important problem, and then they have to go and moot parliament. So in all the religions there are tremendous inequalities on grounds of sex, some in one area, some in the other, but it's always very difficult to change things.

Stephen Crittenden: And at a time when Muslim minorities in western countries are quietly trying to get Sharia law introduced in dribs and drabs here and there, I wonder is there any big move afoot in India to get rid of these systems of religious personal law?

Martha Nussbaum: Well as you said, the Muslim system of law is not Sharia law as such; it has elements from that, but it is an old set of laws that go back to the Raj, and it's been reformed in various ways over time, but the move really is all in the direction of making it more progressive and more representative. The Muslim Personal Law Board is a self-perpetuating group of male clerics, and Muslims in India really don't feel that it represents them all that well. Certainly Muslim women feel that it doesn't represent them at all. And so Muslim women, by and large, would quite like to see the uniform civil code introduced, except that then, at a certain point, the Hindu right took that up as a rallying cry and they kept saying 'Uniform civil code' in a way that suggested that that would be a Hindu code and it would in some way denigrate Muslims. And so at that point, it became difficult politically for Muslim feminists to support a uniform code. But they have achieved great progress in getting laws to be interpreted in such a way. But they were consistent with the constitutional guarantee of sex equality which India has very explicitly."

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