Friday, 8 February 2008

The Archbishop and Shari'a

In an interview for The World at One, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the world-wide Anglican church, put forward the argument that elements of Shair’a law should be introduced into British law. This was in order to avoid Muslims having “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

Naturally, the Archbishop has been jumped upon from all sides of the political…(I was going to write “spectrum” there but upon reflection the political spectrum seems rather monochrome these day. But I digress..). More predictable will be the tabloid rants that will follow in the morning. Both The Sun and The Daily Mail are going to have a lot of fun at Dr. Williams’ expense.

So, what did the Archbishop actually say? A lot more than is being reported, even on the BBC. Dr. Williams is taking part in an ongoing debate in the future of multi-culturalism. This latest contribution is an attempt to address and expand the role of multi-culturalism in the framework of the nation-state.

Crudely put, the premise is thus: we are currently living in a post-Enlightenment world. People live in a multitude of over-lapping communities, each with their own culture, tradition and values. How do we allow people in such a society to follow their own way of life without compromising the rights of their fellow human beings, both those in their own cultural group, and those in adjacent groups?

By highlighting one specific aspect, that of Muslim communities and Shari’a, Dr Williams is effectively attempting to role back the nation-state, although not in the simple-minded way that doubtless will fill the newspapers tomorrow. The Archbishop also raises the dangers of human-rights abuses that can and do occur under Shari’a, abuses that simply are not to be tolerated under a Western democracy (and, I would argue, under any regime).

But it seems to me that Dr. Williams is a believer, but not of the Enlightenment. Although grateful for “the wake up call” that the Enlightenment has given religion, he is no great believer in what he sees as extreme examples of Enlightenment government in action, singling out Revolutionary France and China of the1970s. To my mind, neither is a great example. France descended into anarchy and bloodshed after the overthrow of the monarchy, and China was just rid of Mao, whose brutality exceeded none and whose permanent revolution was based on nothing more than state-encouraged violence.

What would be the future role of the State? It seems to be the guarantee of last resort for “human dignity”: a baseline which, it is believed that all can agree too. An individual would have rights guaranteed by the State, but would be free to suspend these if they so choose. But also one would be free to act upon those rights; nor could anybody stop another acting upon their rights if they so choose. Under Shari’a, that would effectively mean that apostasy could not carry the usual penalty (i.e. death). It would also mean that communities would be free to draw up codes that would have legal weight, especially in the areas of finance or civil disputes.

As things stands in Britain today, I think that Dr. Williams’ suggestions, although interesting, rather over-complicate matters. He is right to raise the issue of law and the plural society but Britain has always had a tradition, until very recently, of the citizen having negative rights. What I mean by this is that in Britain, if there is no law saying that a citizen is forbidden from doing something, then the citizen has the freedom to do it. This state is in contradiction to the European model of positive State rights: if there is no law allowing a certain act, then it is forbidden.
As applied to this debate, there is already room for groups to live how they choose. But if any religion has a set of laws that can be seen to have benefit to a community, why limit it to just that community? There is a political process in Britain that allows any citizen or group to put forward ideas, regardless of which philosophy the given idea is based upon. Let the suggested law be upheld to public scrutiny and, if it is a good law, then let it be passed into statute. That way, instead of being a more fragmented society, Britain becomes a lot more inclusive for all.