Rowan Williams and Sharia law

Rowan Williams being foolish again.

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.

Previous: Rowan Williams on good and bad imperialism, Germaine Greer on bastardy in Islam, Gang rape in Pakistan, Is the phrase 'honour killing' orientalist?


Anonymous said…
I find this frightening and very naive and unenlightened. Is the Archbishop actually making a case for cultural and moral relativism? Is he saying there shouldn't be certain basic rights that accrue to all of us, simply by virtue of being human? Laws are one way of enforcing such rights. . .or at least punishing and marginalizing those who refuse to get with the program.

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"
Karen Tintori said…
I just checked the calendar for the second time. Nope, it’s not April 1st. But the Archbishop is certainly a fool.

The Western world won’t even go down with a whimper. We’ll just hand our values and culture over.

I am in shock at the news out of the UK the past two days.

Karen Tintori, author
Unto the Daughters: The Legacy of an Honor Killing in a Sicilian-American Family