Leading article: No decent law allows coercion

Share
Related Topics

"You can barely use the word sharia because of what people associate with it." How right Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, turned out to be. The idea of finding "a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law", of which he spoke in a BBC Radio 4 interview last week, is one that triggered a reaction not wholly related to his actual words. But if he knew that sharia was a word susceptible to misunderstanding, surely he should have known how important it was for him to be clear.

It was no use Dr Williams protesting that he was not talking about the "brutal and inhuman and unjust" forms of sharia as practised in Saudi Arabia or countries where women are stoned for adultery if they are raped. The problem is that, even if we take out the stoning, the chopping off of hands and the "honour" killing, a code of law that claims its authority from long-standing religious tradition is likely to be reactionary in general and restrictive of the rights of women in particular. Dr Williams acknowledged at one point in his lecture that "questions of the status of women and converts" in sharia were "neuralgic". But if he were not talking about that kind of sharia, it was unclear what he was saying.

Thus he allowed many people to read a subtext to his words, which is that there is "one law for us and another law for them". It is a widespread sentiment, tinged with racism, and anyone in a position of leadership ought to be careful not to provide unwarranted support for it.

Nor is it any use Dr Williams's supporters – or, more accurately, those people of goodwill who sought to understand what it was that the Archbishop might have been trying to say – pointing out that some religious courts are allowed to arbitrate on questions of marriage among orthodox Jews. The point is that no special amendment has been made to UK law to allow these courts to function. There can be no objection in principle to religious authorities that set themselves up as arbitration or mediation services; the question is whether their clients take part on the basis of informed consent.

Indeed, as the Archbishop said in his interview: "It would be quite wrong to say that we could ever license a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens." That would seem to go to the heart of the issue. The worry about religious courts – Jewish or Muslim – is that they resist equal rights for women, and it is difficult to define where voluntary submission by women ends and coercion begins. Instead of proposing further "accommodation" of religious law, we should be more robust in policing that boundary.

This is the same issue in forced marriages, which, as we reveal today, have been massively under-reported in this country. The scandal of "honour" killings is the visible extreme end of a subculture which oppresses women, and which draws on the authority of religion, as Joan Smith points out today. This situation has come about partly because of a well-meaning attempt to accommodate the cultures of immigrants, of which Dr Williams's lecture seems to be a part. Recently, significant liberal voices, such as that of Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have insisted that there must be limits to this ill-defined multiculturalism. What was remarkable about the Archbishop's intervention was that he did not engage in this argument at all.

So let us do it for him. The law in a liberal democracy should apply to everyone equally, as far as possible, with exceptions in only the most difficult cases for conscientious objectors. That includes Sikhs riding motorcycles, or doctors who refuse to carry out abortions. It should not include turning a blind eye to forced marriages, or to the use of arranged marriages as an immigration scam; nor should it include paying state benefit to multiple wives.

In each case, the current of thinking, even among liberals and among liberal British Muslims, is away from the direction suggested so nebulously by Dr Williams. The Association of Chief Police Officers is taking "honour" killing and forced marriages more seriously than ever. Ann Cryer, the left-wing MP for Keighley, has been harrying a government that appears to lack any sense of urgency over arranged marriages that amount to a form of people-trafficking from Pakistan.

On every issue where there is tension between religion and state, the Government needs to be encouraged by defenders of liberal democracy to insist on the primacy of universal rights. The Archbishop was well-intentioned but unwise to allow himself to be allied to the pre-Enlightenment elements of another faith by trying to go in the opposite direction.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - SQL Server, T-SQL

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Data Analyst (SQL Server, T-SQL, data)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road