Deborah Orr: Don't be fooled... the archbishop wants to beat extremists at their own game

Saturday 09 February 2008 01:00 GMT

As he summed up his controversy-igniting lecture on sharia in Britain at London's Royal Courts of Justice this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned that "if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of 'deconstruction' of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment". I think it's safe to say that hardly a soul is heeding his warning. Crude oppositions and mythologies are exactly what people are rushing headlong to display.

Everyone is against Rowan Williams. Or so they think, anyway. Gordon Brown's spokesman declared that the Prime Minister "believes that British laws should be based on British values". Shadow community cohesion minister Baroness Warsi declared that integration of sharia law was "unacceptable". Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg insisted that "we cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another".

Reassuringly robust as all of these rebuttals are, the fact is that none of them really contradicts what Williams was actually attempting to say. His contention, one that is hardly surprising coming from a religious figure, is that the law might work better if it accepted that disputes among consenting groups of adults who shared certain values – and in this case he was talking mainly, but not exclusively, of British Muslim communities – could be allowed formally to arbitrate among themselves.

In doing so, he drew attention to something that is already happening, but informally. Much of the rest of his musings concerned themselves with considering whether we carry on as we are, letting these organisations conduct matters privately, or involve ourselves in debating how to increase awareness of their potential weaknesses, and maximise their potential strengths. On that reading, Williams is against "sleepwalking into separation" and in favour of "community cohesion". Far from pandering to "extremists", he is thinking about how to beat them at their own game.

Any arbitration, he emphasised, could not contravene the rule of law. Or as he put it himself: "If any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights."

The archbishop went on to point out that even this safeguard is no guarantee of an absence of conflict. He then referred to the work of the Jewish legal theorist Ayelet Shachar. She warns of the risks of adopting "any model that ends up 'franchising' a non-state jurisdiction so as to reinforce its most problematic features and further disadvantage its weakest members".

Williams is clear on what some of the risks involved in a process of formalising sharia, or any system of religion belief, might be. He is concerned, for example, about the further promotion of one phenomenon that seems to irritate almost everyone, the "vexatious appeal to religious scruple". He cites the fairly trivial example of a Muslim woman who refused to handle a book of Bible stories while working in Marks & Spencer.

Clearly one wouldn't want to formalise any sort of organisation that might display a bias towards indulging such petty insubordinations, though it might be added that since there has already been a formalisation of the Catholic church's wish to reject the inquiries of gay adoptive parents, we might have formalised such an organisation already in electing the present government.

Williams does suggest, though, that far from being a conduit for these sorts of cases, in which much legal, court and tribunal time is squandered, a religious body that took seriously the business of distinguishing between religious and cultural demands could be an asset in a pluralist society. It could keep such silliness out of the mainstream courts.

Or as he put: "There needs to be access to recognised authority acting for a religious group: there is already, of course, an Islamic Sharia Council, much in demand for rulings on marital questions in the UK. And if we were to see more latitude given in law to rights and scruples rooted in religious identity, we should need a much enhanced and quite sophisticated version of such a body, with increased resource and a high degree of community recognition, so that "vexatious" claims could be summarily dealt with.

"The secular lawyer needs to know where the potential conflict is real, legally and religiously serious, and where it is grounded in either nuisance or ignorance. There can be no blank cheques given to unexamined scruples." This is very far from the setting up of sharia courts that Williams has been painted as advocating, and within his proposal, I think, there is a germ of a good idea.

Williams is more concerned about other, more challenging elisions of religious and cultural belief in British Muslim communities. He is worried that "recognition of 'supplementary jurisdiction' in some areas, especially family law, could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women".

However, applying his arguments about "vexatious appeal" offers, again, a more benign role for an Islamic jurisdiction. Muslim feminists explain until they are blue in their unveiled faces that at root Islam does not discriminate against women, and that such practices as female circumcision, forced marriage, "honour killing", or full veiling are cultural practices that mistakenly, or in the case of full veiling, overzealously, have come to be associated with Islam.

I have to confess that it lifts my heart to imagine a legally and religiously recognised board of religious Muslim people, widely supported, and committed to taking a lead in plotting a modern yet Islamic attitude to the rights of women in Britain and around the world. It could be rather wonderful, and is quite a different proposition from the one we have been led to believe that Williams made.

Four seasons? So last century

I do have some sympathy with those disgruntled cinema-goers who complained to trading standards that there was no hint in the advertisement that Sweeney Todd was a musical.

You definitely need to be warned before you go to a musical, because it can be quite disconcerting to discover that you are watching an entertainment that, almost by definition, spends a whole five minutes informing you of every single little thing that happens. Warned this week that the version of Little Women I was going to see at Rada was a low-budget musical acted by students, I was able to adjust my expectations firmly downwards.

As a result, I emerged from the theatre after three glorious hours, eyes piggy with sentimental sobbing, and hair stuck to my cheeks with the snot of unconfined weeping.

Just think, if I'd read the programme less carefully, I could have emerged from the theatre feeling cheated. Where would my dignity have been then?

* The yearly stirring of new life and new growth has in recent times been marked with an official greeting from Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips. Acting as Middle England's media cuckoo, she likes to reassure her readers that early springs are as old as the planet, signalling not global warming but a golden opportunity to get more wear out of our pretty tea dresses.

Alas, the Mail was this year forced to concede a tacit defeat, and report instead that winter is on its way out altogether. Dr Nigel Taylor, curator of Kew Gardens in south-west London, suggests that England barely experiences four seasons at all any more, and that "there is a real problem with spring because so much is flowering so early".

My own garden is not quite Kew, but I must confess I know how he feels. In the autumn there was never a decisive frost, and lots of plants haven't died back. The new stuff is coming up through the old stuff, and any messing about is likely to damage the tender new growth. Usually at this time, one is enjoying the thrill of seeing the bulbs come up, impatient for everything to get going again. By late summer, one starts becoming alarmed at the galloping vegetation, even developing a certain yearning for summer to be over. This year, I've reached that point in record time.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in