The Archbishop’s Sharia Mistake

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Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, recently stated that he believes the eventual adoption of some aspects of sharia law into British law is unavoidable. This has caused quite an outcry.

As an Episcopalian and thus part of the Anglican Communion, I’m familiar with Archbishop Rowan. He’s a very thoughtful man and a wonderful writer. He has had the misfortune of inheriting a church that is greatly divided over social issues, particularly whether to accept or condemn homosexuality. He also has the misfortune of being a poor politician. This is not the first time he’s made less-than-wise political statements. But it is the largest denunciation of his words.

Taken at face value, his comments on sharia law are quite condemnable. There is little reason to think Britain could maintain its equal rights or even its democracy under a plural legal system, one of which strictly limits certain freedoms held dear in Western culture. However, in the greater context of British thought and law, Dr. Williams’ comments make a little more sense, even though they remain worthy of rebuke.

Sharia courts already operate in Great Britain. Although their status is unofficial, British authorities have generally allowed them to continue and Dr. Williams is hardly the first to argue that a plural legal system could be acceptable.

In fact, Dr. Williams’ mistake was not so much the suggestion that there’s room for sharia courts in Britain, but that the adoption of some sharia law into British law is unavoidable. To that point, John O’Sullivan of The New York Post says:

The archbishop’s use of the word “unavoidable” was significant: It reflects not just his mindset but that of British ministers and the country’s wider multicultural establishment – who would like to protect rights such as gender equality in law but positively shrink from any conflict with ethno-cultural groups that oppose and threaten them.

If that mindset prevails, then sharia – women’s second-class status and all – will indeed be unavoidable.

That, I think, is the crux of the problem. Dr. Williams sees the creep of sharia law into the British system and, rather than voicing concern about the trend, has decided acquiescence is the more appropriate reaction. It’s not. But for a religious scholar of a denomination known for accommodating new ideas and permitting dissent, I’m not too surprised by Dr. Williams’ remarks.

Clearly, the Archbishop was wrong and all of us who condemn his statement are right to do so. But we must remember that this man is not a legal scholar or a politician. He’s a religious man whose concerns are more with divine grace than contemporary concepts of freedom. Yes, I would prefer an Archbishop with a more worldly sense of human rights (particularly women’s rights), but I can understand why a religious leader might choose conciliation rather than confrontation with another religion. Rowan Williams is no radical and shouldn’t be treated as such. He’s a religious man who should leave politics to the political realm.