Monday, February 11, 2008

A New Challenge to the Separation of Church and State

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stated in an interview last week, with BBC Radio, that he believes adopting certain aspects of sharia law would lead to better social cohesion of the muslim community within the UK. He believes that currently muslims are faced with "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty". Let me translate that gobbledy-gook into plain English. He feels that many observant muslims are faced with the dilemma of obeying either their religious imperatives, as laid out by the quran (and the sharia interpreters), or the law of the land. He believes that muslims are being oppressed by having to submit to the common English law without recourse to their own sharia courts.

There are so many concerns which need to be separated and individually addressed here. Let me start first with muslim reaction in the UK. It is one of puzzlement. After recent talks of integrating the muslim community further into the mainstream of UK life and fighting feelings of alienation amongst the younger generation, one does not know what to make of the Archbishop's statements. Some raise practical questions: How would disagreements between sharia and secular law be resolved? Given the various sects, whose sharia would gain primacy? Others ask more penetrating questions: Wouldn't adoption of the sharia law actually achieve the exact opposite effect- that of further delineating the muslim individual rather than leading to further cohesion? Sharia is not renowned for its enlightened stance on most issues even if many in the world would willingly submit to it. What about the status of women? If sharia were formalized, would this not sow the seeds of discontent among other religious communities (like the hindus, christians, buddhists...) who could then ask to follow their own religious edicts instead of the national law?

Another aspect of this issue has to deal with the fact that by introducing muslim courts one would reintroduce an aspect of life most people may have been fleeing from, in the first place, by emigrating to a secular country. Rowan Williams wears the blinders of a religious man who cannot conceive of lives that do not revolve around religious conviction alone. There are plenty of younger people who are forced into arranged marriages and "honor" rituals in the UK, who have some recourse currently in the secular law of the land. Sharia courts would be a huge disservice to them. Indeed, he goes so far as to think that the introduction of sharia courts would somehow reduce these "cultural practices" by allowing for their legal monitoring. Huh? So sharia courts would bring to the fore that which was previously a hidden "cultural practice" but how would legal monitoring serve any purpose if sharia law considered said cultural practice correct?

Another set of questions raised by the Archbishop's comments relate to his motivation. Why would he be championing muslim rights to a separate sharia court? If one were to read or hear the full-text of his conversation with BBC's Christopher Landau, one will also hear other comments such as:
"What we don't want either, is I think, a stand-off, where the law squares up to people's religious consciences". [sic]
"An approach to law which simply said that there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands our loyalties or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the court - I think that's a bit of a danger".
"That principle that there is only one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a western democracy. But I think it is a misunderstanding to suppose that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that".
He goes on to make more confused noises while presenting examples such as whether a catholic adoption agency would be forced to consider gay parents under equality laws. His words swing between seemingly selfless championing of religious rights to incoherent ramblings about the trampling of the religious conscience by western secular democracy. One begins to wonder whether his true motivations aren't to strengthen judeo-christian religion and ultimately the church of England's position and re-establish it as the font of legal and moral authority in the land.

The danger of undoing the separation of church (mosque, temple, synagogue...) and state is very real in many democracies. There have been attacks on secular institutions and laws before. This attack from within is unexpected and therefore, the more dangerous. Williams states that most people are torn between their religious affiliations and the law and that their religious needs (which he euphemistically calls cultural practices) should get precedence. His suggestions would certainly strengthen the religious orders but I am afraid his fiction about a more cohesive society would remain just that. Let the Archbishop note that sharia law is accepted in many parts of the world and human rights have certainly not improved in areas under sharia law comparative to areas under secular law.

Quotes were taken from news stories on the BBC.

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