UK: Comment: "On the issue of equality it is not just the sharia that needs reform, but all monotheistic faiths"
I am a supporter of Rowan Williams, yet I had to decline. The archbishop is a fine philosopher and an enlightened theologian. He can be convoluted, a trifle too pedantic on occasion, but I don't hold this against him. That he has acquired a string of enemies in the Anglican Church and among mindlessly patriotic politicians and journalists on left and right makes me a fan. However, his latest attempt to champion the Muslim cause is disingenuous.
Ostensibly, his "foundation lecture" at the Royal Courts of Justice was about the sharia, but I detect something different underneath. Nor was "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective" complex or obscure, as was widely suggested. It is an argument for a "higher-level" legal system that respects religious identity and communal rights. In particular, it seeks to redefine the relationship between law and conscience.
Williams uses sharia as an example to illustrate what he means. In certain matters, such as marriage and divorce, financial transactions and settling disputes, Muslims should be allowed to resort to the sharia, which ought to be recognised as a viable legal system. He rightly suggests there is no monolithic notion of sharia, that we should distinguish between sharia and cultural practice, and that sharia is not a ready-made system but something actualised through practice.
Yet this enlightened appreciation of sharia law is limited to a handful of Muslim reformers. It is not just in the west, as the archbishop suggests, that the sharia is misunderstood, or where it conjures up instant images of oppression and brutality. It is also misunderstood by most Muslims in countries other than Britain, countries where it is seen as a total system of divine origin, and where it sometimes leads to oppression and brutality.
The idea that sharia law has to be reconstructed from epoch to epoch is relatively new. The archbishop puts the cart before the horse. The sharia needs to be reformed totally before it can be implemented anywhere - among the Muslim minorities in liberal democracies or in the Muslim-majority states. Giving the sharia as it stands legal sanction in Britain, even in limited areas, will replicate all the problems of gender inequality that it has produced in Muslim countries.
But it is not the archbishop's position on the sharia that troubles me. It is his carefully argued position against "legal universalism". I have no problem with the argument that liberal, secular law should not be seen as universal. However, Williams is saying something else. He does not want the "conscientious disagreement" that a faith community has with state law to be "overruled by a monopolistic understanding of jurisdiction". What this means is that faith communities should be allowed to opt out of laws that go against their teachings. This, I would suggest, is a recipe for compromising notions of equality and equal treatment before state law.
A telling example shows where all this is leading. Roman Catholic adoption agencies, the archbishop suggests, should have the right to reject gay men and lesbians as adoptive parents. The corollary is that the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches should have the right to stop gays from taking senior positions in church ranks. Ditto for women. The archbishop's attempt to redefine the relationship between religious conscience and law turns out to be about Christian churches and their position on such issues as gay rights and abortion. The sharia is a distraction.
I am all for enlarging the religious space in a secular state. However, it seems to me that on the issue of equality it is not just the sharia that needs reform, but all monotheistic faiths. Faith folks, such as the archbishop and I, have legitimate moral qualms about "legal universalism". Nevertheless, we are obliged to follow the law, which applies to all, equally and universally.
By: Ziauddin Sardar
14 February 2008
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