The Ranting Kraut

19.3.2006 – 27.9.2010

Sharia in Britain: What is Dr. Rowan Williams’ Vision for Society?

Posted by rantingkraut on February 15, 2008

The archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks on sharia have, to some degree, been simplified in public discussion. However, a full understanding of Dr. Williams’ argument does nothing to improve his message and does not weaken the conclusion that a partial adoption of sharia is unlikely to be feasible. Full knowledge of the lecture delivered at the Courts of Justice merely defines Dr. Williams’ outlook as collectivist and authoritarian.

Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury has this month destroyed what little was left of his reputation by calling for the formal acceptance of parts of sharia in British law. It is worth noting that he was not the first to do so. Dr Suhaib Hasan, a Muslim Council of Britain spokesman, had done much the same thing in late January.

I will not elaborate on how and why official recognition of a separate body of religious law is incompatible with the notions of a secular state and equality before the law. Others have done so extensively and more prominently.

There are two aspects of this discussion which are worth pondering in more detail:

1. If there is a move towards the acceptance of sharia, can it remain partial in scope? and

2. What do the archbishop’s remarks imply for the social order more generally?

1. A Limited Role for Sharia in Britain?

During the discussion surrounding Rowan Williams’ remarks, it was pointed out repeatedly, that informal sharia courts already operate in Britain. These courts, of course, do not have any legally enforceable power over anyone who doesn’t accept their role in the first place.

To the best of my knowledge, anyone can voluntarily enter into an agreement appointing an arbiter for civil disputes. In this sense, informal religious courts at present have no more legal authority than an agreement between two neighbours would have if they decided to consult the local postman for a judgement on their private quarrels. That is not to say that religious courts do not have a lot of clout in their local community, but formal legal authority they have not.

This would change under the archbishop’s proposals. Dr. Williams not only proposes some administrative simplification. He does not merely want informal court verdicts to be formally approved more easily, but would like to see members of different religious communities to be automatically subject to legally binding judgements by their respective religious courts.

The thin end of a wedge?

Of course, Williams does not advocate sharia criminal law. He explicitly criticises the prohibition of apostasy in Islam. The question however is not simply what Dr. Williams wants but what should realistically be expected once some aspects of sharia are given formal legitimacy.

At this point, it is essential to bear in mind that Dr. Williams is not alone in demanding legally binding religious laws. In the case of sharia, this desire is shared by numerous Muslim community leaders. Many of these are classed as moderate, but even those moderates’ views clash with core values of Western secular society.

The MCB’s Abdul Bari, for example, does not seem to feel too strongly about confining sharia to Muslims. After all, he is on record asking for the adoption of arranged marriage in mainstream British society. Dr. Suhaib Hasan, calls for the introduction sharia in family matters. He does not press for sharia criminal law, because he thinks it unlikely that demands in that direction will be met –in other words: this is a purely tactical position, there is no indication that he actually believes that there is anything wrong in principle with sharia criminal law. [1]

Should one expect people like Abdul Bari and Suhaib Hassan to have decisive influence in this matter? There are good reasons to expect that they will have such influence within the Muslim community. Many ordinary Muslims may indeed mainly or only care about the application of sharia in family matters or similar civil disputes.

These ordinary people are not the ones that will set the political agenda though. Political lobbying is much more likely to be undertaken by community leaders like those mentioned above. Once the basic objective of formally codifying sharia for some areas is achieved, they can be relied upon to work towards an extension of the scope of the legal paradigm which they regard as inherently superior.

Will those extensions in scope be granted? In principle, they wouldn’t need to be. The Muslim community in Britain still is a relatively small minority [2]. Muslims alone can’t swing elections, nor is there any other obvious way in which they can dictate the legislative agenda. If Muslim leaders’ political demands are a necessary condition for a gradual expansion of sharia, the government’s ideological bias provides the complementary necessary condition.

The origin of a situation in which the formal endorsement of pre-modern religious law is even considered lies in the government’s self inflicted ideological weakness; in their reflexive inclination to give in to the demands of cultural or ethnic minorities without much reflection on the contents of these demands. The current weakness of secular democracy therefore arises from Western society’s insecure relativism much more than from any external threat.

2. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Ideological Background

In this context, it is worth asking in which direction the Anglican Church is going. Bishop Nazir Ali, who famously raised the issue of no-go area for non-Muslims, is quoted in the same context bemoaning the loss of influence of the Anglican Church and warning of a possible separation of Church and state.

Yet it is precisely the absence of such a separation which is the core of the problem, an issue which becomes apparent in Rowan Williams’ speech.

So what exactly did the archbishop of Canterbury say in his Courts of Justice Lecture? The full text of the speech is available here . The main argument, put concisely, is as follows:

The lecture explores the central question about the relationship between secular and religious law and notes that there is substantial room for interpretation of sharia. Muslims and members of other religious communities have multiple loyalties and regard their religious loyalties as supreme. Secular law should therefore protect religious convictions, as identified within the relevant community, against legal rules which are otherwise valid for citizens in general. At the same time, citizens’ rights should be protected from oppression within religious communities. Conflicts between these two objectives can be overcome by enforcing respect for human dignity as such.

Dr. Williams’ lecture transcript reads less like an appeal to religious conservatism than a post-modernist, communitarian manifesto. The archbishop appears to be highly suspicious of any judgement which is left to private, individual decision making. Indeed, the main aim of this lecture, aside from claiming legal privilege for religion, seems to be a call for a social structure where all forms of human interaction are somehow embedded into some community based hierarchy.

This vision of society shows a totalitarian tendency since it systematically sub-ordinates the individual under the community. It is totalitarian not in the sense of a centralised hierarchy but in a society centred around a plurality of communities with largely unrestrained authority over their members. Individual liberty would in such a system be constrained to the choice of the controlling community.

Dr. Williams goes so far as to state that “It would be a pity if … a person was defined primarily as the possessor of a set of abstract liberties and the law’s function was accordingly seen as nothing but the securing of those liberties irrespective of the custom and conscience of those groups which concretely compose a plural modern society.” [3] Yet, in a free society and as far as the law is concerned, that is exactly how a person should be defined. This is not to deny that the individual citizen would develop a much more complex identity in his or her social interactions, but these should as a rule not be controlled by the state.

The closest Dr. Williams comes to calling for a protection of individual liberty is when he demands respect for “human dignity as such” which he defines as “a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a group.

Note that this definition refers to an assumption of an expectation, not its realisation. Even if this expectation is fulfilled, what is demanded here is nothing more than a very loosely defined right to participation in a collective decision making process. There is simply no allowance at all for the protection of individual rights against the power of the collective.


The archbishop is right when he argues that the public discussion of his remarks does not reflect what was said in his Courts of Justice lecture. The problem for him is that the wider context of the lecture does nothing to improve his message.

With respect to the particular issue of sharia, it is apparent that Dr. Williams is incredibly naïve about the likely extent of moderation within contemporary Islam. As a result, he is unduly optimistic about the prospect of selectively endorsing parts of sharia as part of UK law. In other respects, e.g. with regards to freedom of speech [4] or opposition to the secular state, he simply shares the Islamists’ authoritarian perspective.

As regards his wider view of society he simply endorses the brand of communitarian authoritarianism which formed the ideological basis of the Blair-Brown regime. An ideology which has given us a revival of censorship, intense government surveillance and countless attempts to put government agencies in charge of micro-managing citizens’ private lives.

[1] That Dr. Hasan would otherwise approve of sharia criminal law is not a matter of speculation, the telegraph quotes him as saying: “Even though cutting off the hands and feet, or flogging the drunkard and fornicator, seem to be very abhorrent, once they are implemented, they become a deterrent for the whole society.

[2] Mike Hume puts it at 3% of the total population.

[3] The omission indicated (…) refers to an interpretation of rights leading to the conclusion of individual liberty. The quotation appears in one of the later paragraphs of the lecture beginning “I labour the point because…”.

[4] In the lecture, Williams explicitly endorses religiously inspired censorship: “I have argued recently in a discussion of the moral background to legislation about incitement to religious hatred that any crime involving religious offence has to be thought about in terms of its tendency to create or reinforce a position in which a religious person or group could be gravely disadvantaged in regard to access to speaking in public in their own right…” This statement seems to indicate that Dr. Williams does not view freedom of speech as a right to be protected but instead perceives the public expression of opinion as a social engineering tool whose use should be directed towards producing outcomes desired by the relevant authorities. Islamists may disagree with Dr. Williams regarding the social outcomes seen as desirable, but could probably be relied upon to endorse his rejection of freedom of speech as an individual right.

One Response to “Sharia in Britain: What is Dr. Rowan Williams’ Vision for Society?”

  1. Kevyn Bodman said

    You are right to point out the aspects of communitarian thinking in the speech.
    I haven’t seen that mentioned elsewhere although it is clear in the lecture.
    The speech is a call for some sharia, but it’s not just that; it’s also a call for more weight to religion and less weight to secularism throughout the UK.
    The Archbishop is badly misguided if he thinks any implementation of sharia will aid social cohesion.On the contrary it would only further separate communities.
    He is also wrong if he thinks the advocates of sharia would be satisfied with partial implementation.It is seen as a complete system.
    But those of us who are calmly discussing and disecting the thinking behind this matter are also misguided.
    What is needed is bold assertiveness; there will be no sharia in the UK.There is sharia in other countries, go there if that’s what you want.

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