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

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape