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

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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness