Paul Vallely: Williams is snared in a trap of his own making

Share
Related Topics

Rowan Williams bridles when anyone suggests that he is the Anglican church's equivalent of the Pope. But he has made the same mistake in discussing sharia law that Pope Benedict XVI made in his ill-fated foray on the subject of Islam at the University of Regensburg two years ago, which sparked protests around the world, the murder of a nun and much else.

The error is assuming that the leader of a major church has the same intellectual freedom that he had when he was merely an eminent theologian. The cold fact is that the semiotics are entirely different. An academic may call for a nuanced renegotiation of society's attitudes to the internal laws of religious communities. But when the Archbishop of Canterbury does that the headline follows, as night follows day: "Sharia law in UK is unavoidable, says Archbishop."

This is not what he was saying, and yet it is. News has little room for the subtleties of academic gavottes around delicate subjects. A canny religious leader – or at any rate his press office – ought to know that.

The problem comes when you ask what is meant by sharia. Most of us are clear. It is to do with the stoning to death of adulterous women (even when they have been raped) and chopping the hands off thieves. It is what the Saudis do, and the Taliban.

However, this is, Dr Williams suggests, a travesty of the truth. What sharia means, and most Islamic jurists agree, he tells us, is not a list of laws but a way of thinking that expresses the universal principles of Islam. Codifications of that law, by the Saudis, the Taliban or whoever, are inevitably reductive and therefore false. "An excessively narrow understanding of sharia, as simply codified rules," he says in the full lecture on which the stories were based, "can have the effect of actually undermining the universal claims of the Koran."

What Dr Williams is saying is that we all have overlapping identities. It is possible to be a British citizen, a Muslim, a Tory and a member of the local golf club at the same time. Each of these identities brings with it rules and it is high time that British society took account of this instead of "a secular government assuming a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity".

Thus, as a golf club or political party may expel a member who breaks its rules, so a religion may have a legal code under which marital or financial disputes can be decided. The law should recognise this, as it does already with the internal systems of Orthodox Jews. But in a way which does not dispense with a citizen's rights to appeal to the courts of law. All but Islamicist "primitivists" would accept that this is a secondary jurisdiction. That, I think, is what he is saying in an immensely dense, 7,000 word text.

The trouble is that most people have not ploughed through all that, which is why the Tories called the Archbishop's remarks "unhelpful", the Liberal Democrats said all must abide by the rule of law and the Home Office minister Tony McNulty said: "To ask us to fundamentally change the rule of law and to adopt Sharia law, I think, is fundamentally wrong."

To all of which the Archbishop may say "but you are objecting to something you think I said rather than what I actually did say". He has a point. But, equally, in a world where perception becomes its own reality, it is important for the leader of the Church of England not to create such fecund opportunities for misunderstanding.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing