Rowan Williams' Penance: Britain and the Sharia

This piece was commissioned by the ABC for their 'Unleashed' opinion pages; it can also be found here, along with a flurry of commentary that seems more or less to underscore my point (mostly unwittingly). More to the point, given my concerns, you can find the original lecture here.

Last Thursday, the day after the Christian penitential season of Lent began, Rowan Williams took up his cross in a new and unforeseen way. Just when many thought his greatest challenge and burden in the first part of 2008 was the fragmentation besetting the world-wide Anglican Communion, a firestorm has erupted in Britain itself over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments in a lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice and a related BBC interview concerning possible application of Sharia, the Muslim legal tradition. The reactions of the British press and public to his reflections have pushed gay American bishops and strident African fundamentalists well onto the backburner.

The most interesting and worrisome thing about this new controversy is not the content of Dr Williams’ lecture, or even the broader issue of Islamic law in Britain, but the violence of the reaction. Outpourings of horror and derision have come from thousands of people who have no idea what he actually suggested, and hundreds who think they do, but have responded to his assumed views without meaningful reference to his actual words. The Archbishop hit a nerve that has sent a whole section of British society into paroxysms not so much about what he said, as about what they fear.

The proposals the Dr Williams made were actually quite unremarkable, consisting of some gentle, and fairly incidental, glances at the emerging but far from complete accommodation in Britain of aspects of Sharia related to issues such as marriage. His real concern in the lecture was to ask more fundamental questions about the relationship between the practices and identities of faith communities – including the Christian Church - and the fundamentals of civil law in a pluralistic society.

The Archbishop’s thoughts were as much a description of existing and emerging legal practice as a call for change. There are many examples in the UK, and for that matter here in Australia, where forms of consultation rooted in particular traditions and communities are treated as viable and valuable supplements to conventional legal proceedings and practices. In the UK, a Beit Din or Jewish Court has long been able to exercise jurisdiction for certain cases between Orthodox Jews, often to do with marriage and divorce. In Australia, the closest analogy might be the uses of traditional law in certain Aboriginal communities. There are less charged examples, such as agreed conciliation processes, or local experiments with community conferences for young offenders. All these cases presume a particular set of understandings shared by participants, and all have their relationship to the law as a whole defined.

We might be properly concerned about how such sub-systems dove-tail with the wider application of civil law, and about maintaining the values or opportunities that have to prevail in a free society. Dr Williams himself was more than clear, stating adamantly that no Islamic (or other) system working as an adjunct to the civil law could be allowed to disadvantage women, for instance, on the basis of custom or culture: “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”.

Yet the public commentary since last Thursday has assumed or asserted that the Archbishop said or implied something quite different: some speak as though he called for a whole code of Islamic law to be implemented, including the worst excesses of the Taliban; others, that he envisaged British Courts themselves administering Sharia instead of British law. These and various other accusations since levelled at him are quite untrue.

Why, when all this is so important for Britain, does a serious and nuanced voice raised in the debate find itself caricatured and howled down? The deep-seated fear of Islam in many parts of the UK seems to have become debilitating to public discourse. Now the capacity of leading figures in British society to engage critically and seriously with the challenge is in question.

Dr Williams has set an example as important as it is forlorn. Few in Britain seem to have felt any desire, let alone responsibility, for directing the public to the issues which affect marginal Muslim and fearful secularist or Christian alike, or even to the real words of Rowan Williams. Politicians have dived for cover. Journalistic commentators have mouthed pompously about him as “bonkers” or “reckless”, wondering loudly about the Archbishop’s judgement and common sense in sparking such a fire, all the while fanning it vigorously themselves.

Of course legal or quasi-legal processes linked to religious and/or ethnic communities are particularly sensitive – but this is why they have to be discussed openly by community leaders. Muffling the debate under hoots and howls is a recipe for disaster. The fear and ignorance abroad about Islam in particular simply cannot be presented as part of a political or social landscape that a canny ecclesiastical bureaucrat will avoid. It must be named and faced, and changed.

If there is hope to be gleaned from this sorry state of affairs, it will be through some few who persist in telling the truth. Dr Williams was right to raise the issue, whether he is right about the particulars of accommodating Sharia in Britain or not. Such a debate as he foreshadowed, but which has been shouted down for the moment, is necessary not only for a serious engagement with Islam and its adherents in Western societies, but for West’s creative response to the subtler question of how our secularism and our religious traditions can coexist.


  1. You quote from the original lecture, but most of the negative reaction in Britain followed an interview Dr Williams subsequently gave on the BBC’s World at One. In that interview, what Williams actually said was, "an approach to law that said ‘there's one law for everyone and that's all’, I think that would be a bit of a danger". (If you don't believe me, listen to the interview by following the link on

    Forgive me if I am one of those who, “think they do [know what he said], but have responded to his assumed views without meaningful reference to his actual words”, but I find Williams's comments deeply, incredibly offensive.

    The range of ways to be offended is varied – you can argue that Britain’s laws are rooted in Christian laws of the middle ages; you can argue that William is woolly-headed (metaphorically as well as literally) to suggest that sharia law is really quite OK, especially on women’s rights; or you can argue that religion in Britain has been subject to civil law since the Reformation and that that is what forms the basis of an very successful society. And, one might add, the basis of successful societies in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc etc.

    There are undoubtedly huge and problematic divides in British society, but allowing one group to opt out of part or all of the laws it has chosen to live under is not the answer.

  2. Anonymous10:57 pm

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