There are no easy answers to the question of the other within. Even without his wig and robes, even in a Muslim centre on Whitechapel Road, Nicholas Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, might seem to have little in common with Ray Lewis, who has been obliged to resign as Deputy Mayor of London. Yet both men are wrestling with related difficulties. Both are addressing the vital issue of alienated communities.
Nick Phillips faced challenges which Ray Lewis was spared. The LCJ had to clear up a mistaken impression which had been created by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams is a distinguished theologian who writes complex poetry; he also has the defects of his qualities. He does not seem able to speak clearly or to make up his mind, and there is another problem. Dr Williams may try to practise humility but he has his vanities, especially intellectual ones. It is as if he were reluctant to discuss common sense matters in plain words, in case this compromised his scholarly reputation.
A few weeks ago, the Archbishop gave a lecture on sharia law. On Thursday, Nick Phillips said that it bears re-reading. That is an understatement. It needs re-reading, and some, to establish that Dr Williams was trying to make a simple point. Like all serious religions, Islam has a moral code. In Islamic nations, this is often enshrined in public law, yet even in non-Islamic states, Muslims might find it easier to resolve certain disputes among themselves if they drew on their own values and laws. But this would not affect the primacy of the laws of Great Britain. In intelligible language, Nicholas Phillips made similar points, especially about British law.
On the face of it, all this might seem too obvious to be worth discussing. A society in which there is no mediation between the individual and the law, so that every dispute ends up in the courts, is not worthy to be termed civilised. Civilisation can exist only if it is underpinned by the little platoons of civil society. In the case of the churches, despite Stalin's denigration, it is more a matter of big battalions: at least, it ought to be. Modern Britain is too litigious and far too prone to divorce. It would be much better if those who are troubled phoned their vicar rather than their solicitor. For vicar, read equivalent in every faith. In Harry Kemelman's delightful detective stories, his unworldly rabbi, in between identifying murderers, will resolve disputes over defective hire cars by reasoning from Talmudic precedents. Vicar, rabbi, priest, presbyter: why not add imams to the list?
If only it were that straightforward. For clerical justice to work, there would have to be the prospect of a benign and uncoerced outcome, with an easy appeal to the legal authorities if the parties were unreconciled. But there are Muslim communities in this country where none of that could be guaranteed. A late-teens girl is in dispute with her father. Is the imam likely to soothe matters by assuring the girl that her father did love her, even if he was not always good at showing it, while reminding Dad that girls will be girls?
Unlikely, partly because so many Muslims are unhappy about girls being girls. One can understand why. Where Westerners talk of freedom, many Muslims see squalor. There are Muslims who believe that "honour" killings bring dishonour upon their religion, but would prefer their daughters to be under the restraints that would have applied to girls of their age in England 50 years ago.
So it is likely that the rulings of sharia law would often run counter to the norms generally accepted and the rights generally enjoyed in the rest of Britain. Although this does not mean that the sharia lawyers would always be wrong, it does guarantee friction, and there is a further problem. It is necessary to assure British Muslims that their rights and freedoms will be respected. It is also necessary to remind some of them that respect is a mutual obligation.
Like Christianity in the days of empires and missionaries, Islam is a totalitarian faith. Some Muslims do not find it easy to live in a non-Muslim society. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as they keep their unease within the law. But it might help to reconcile fundamentalist-minded Muslims to that legal necessity if Christians had more self-confidence. The pre-emptive cultural cringe is harmful to community relations.
Although Rowan Williams did not intend to be part of such a cringe, that is how he came across. The same is true of the Cheshire schoolmistress who made non-Muslim children kneel to worship Allah (imagine if Islamic children had been ordered to kneel in Christian worship. The teacher would be sacked, if not indeed imprisoned, while 20 British Council offices would already have been torched in riots around the Islamic world).
Then there was the Dundee police force which grovelled in apology for putting a dog on some of its advertising material, on the grounds that Muslims might object, even though no one had. None of this will convince a Muslim who hates our society that it is impossible to overthrow it.
Nicholas Phillips was trying to create a wholly different atmosphere: one of tolerance and sophistication, with thoughtful men agreeing that no one had all the answers, which made dialogue and intellectual enquiry all the more important. But his task would be easier if the defence of majority-British values were conducted more forcefully.
Forceful leads us to Ray Lewis. By all accounts, he is a remarkable teacher. He deals with boys who have never known love, order and discipline; who have never known any form of self-esteem that did not involve violence; who are filled with anger and on a hair-trigger for homicide. He makes those boys do what he tells them and feel better about themselves. He might well have prevented a murder or two.
We do not know what he has done wrong, apart from claiming to be a Justice of the Peace, which he is not. That was an act of exasperating stupidity; he absolutely should not have done it. But one can understand how a man who had struggled his way up might be insecure enough to feel the need to enhance his status and naive enough to think that he might get away with it.
We will have to await the report on Mr Lewis's other alleged misdeeds. But one thing is certain. The problem of violent, underclass youth cannot be solved from the top down. We must find people like Ray Lewis, who can work with these boys and somehow realign them to civilised life. It is unlikely that we will discover these social heroes in the administrative grade of the civil service. They will probably be persons from an unconventional background, with few formal qualifications. They might well have flirted with crime themselves. But their success is so important that we must adjust our criteria.
We do not know what sort of a Deputy Mayor Mr Lewis would have made. He might be more usefully deployed at the grassroots rather than in City Hall. But it is vital that his work continues. Lives depend upon it.Reuse content