Trying to figure out what Rowan Williams is saying

February 8, 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 23 Oct. 2006/Claro CortesArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has set off a storm in Britain by saying that some aspects of sharia Islamic law would have to be integrated into the legal system there. There has been almost unanimous criticism of his proposals, including from some Muslim politicians. I’ve read through both his BBC interview and Temple Festival speech to see if there is another message that is being drowned out by the headlines and hullabaloo. There are signs of one, but there are so many questionable assumptions and assertions about Islam and sharia in there that these issues naturally dominate.

The archbishop’s statement about some aspects of sharia being”unavoidable” is so clear that it is hard to argue in his defence that it was taken out of context or hardened up by headline-hungry hacks. This is not like Pope Benedict’s ill-fated Regensburg speech in 2006, where the pontiff quoted a Byzantine emperor slamming Islam and later said he didn’t mean to say he agreed with it. Williams talked about accommodating some aspects of sharia law and spoke in detail about this.

His main complaint seems to be summed up in this passage late in the speech: “One of the most frequently noted problems in the law in this area is the reluctance of a dominant rights-based philosophy to acknowledge the liberty of conscientious opting-out from collaboration in procedures or practices that are in tension with the demands of particular religious groups.” His example for this is the case of Catholic adoption agencies in Britain that have been told they must stop refusing to provide children to gay couples or risk being shut down. The law should allow opt-outs for cases of conscience, he argues, something that is already allowed for doctors who refuse to perform abortions. He also notes that Orthodox Jews have their own courts for some religious issues. So his argument seems to be that opt-outs are needed and Muslims need to have theirs.

Rowan Williams adjusts his mitre, 19 Feb. 2007/Emmanuel KwitemaSimon Barrow, director of the religion think tank Ekklesia, told me he thought “there may be a more reasonable case here than what’s come over.” But the former theology professor tripped up by trying to discuss the issues in public as if he were back in academe. The BBC interview only compounded this by adding the word “unavoidable.”

Williams made several assumptions and assertions about sharia law that cried out for explanation. If he held a news conference to explain his thinking, here are a few that I would expect to be challenged.

Some points by Williams (“ABC“) in the BBC interview:

ABC – “Sharia is a method rather than a code of law … there’s a lot of internal debate within the Islamic community generally about the nature of Sharia and its extent.” — Q. If sharia is so unclear, how can it be accomodated into something as exacting as a Western legal code?

ABC — “The principle, the vision, that animates the Islamic legal provision (on women’s rights) needs broadening.” — Q. Who will decide how to reform women’s rights in Islam and ensure that all sharia courts in Britain apply it? Who will suspend the traditional sharia rule that a woman is worth half a man when it comes to issues like inheritance or testimony in court?

ABC — “It would be quite wrong to say that we could ever licence so to speak a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal.” — Q. What is the purpose of allowing religious courts if defendants can turn around and appeal to civil courts to overturn decisions against them?

ABC — “That principle that there’s one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society.” — Q. Should Britain undermine such a fundamental legal principle to accomodate a minority (and probably a minority within that minority)? Is this the only way to do it? Would decisions by a sharia court, such as a divorce, have to be confirmed by a civil court?

Sharia judges attend the first Arab conference on Islamic law in Amman, 3 Sept. 2007/Majed JaberSome points from the Temple Festival speech:

ABC — “There are a good many voices arguing for an extension of the liberty of ijtihad – basically reasoning from first principles rather than simply the collation of traditional judgments.” Q. — Aren’t most of those Muslims stressing ijtihad the kind of liberal Muslims whose views are rejected by the more traditional scholars who would man a sharia court bench?

ABC — “This account would be hotly contested by some committed Islamic primitivists, by followers of Sayyid Qutb and similar polemicists; but it is fair to say that the great body of serious jurists in the Islamic world would recognise this degree of political plurality as consistent with Muslim integrity. ” Q. — Who defines who the ‘primitivists’ are and whether their views get a hearing?

ABC –”There needs to be access to recognised authority acting for a religious group … if we were to see more latitude given in law to rights and scruples rooted in religious identity, we should need a much enhanced and quite sophisticated version of such a body, with increased resource and a high degree of community recognition, so that ‘vexatious’ claims could be summarily dealt with.” Q. – There is no single religious authority in Islam and Muslims themselves often disagree on certain issues. How can Britain succeed in creating something Muslims themselves have not produced?

A sharia court in Gusau in northern Nigeria, 30 Nov. 2002/Juda NgwenyaAndrew Brown put it well in The Guardian Comment is Free blog: “Dr Williams, characteristically, is interested in the arguments over what sharia law actually says. The rest of the country is more interested in whether and how it might be enforced. Only if Islamic law can be reduced to a game played between consenting adults can it be acceptably enforced in this country; and that’s not, I think, how it is understood by its practitioners. Let’s hope I’m wrong.”

Have you noticed any other questions that should be put to His Grace?


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Some good questions there Tom.

I’d also put one from Archbishop Cranmer:

“Instead of proposing the introduction of Shari’a law to Britain, why did Dr Williams not speak out on behalf of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the 23-year-old Afghan student journalist sentenced to death for downloading ‘anti-Islamic’ material from the internet?”

A couple based on comments from Robert Spencer (who knows something about sharia):

“Islamic law is a program for the governance of the state, and there is no easy sundering of that program from family and marriage law.”

How do you propose that be done when Muslims have been unable to do it already?

History (as well as the experience of “liberal” Islamic states like Malaysia and Turkey) also tells us, as Spencer says, “it is certain that if Islamic law is instituted even in part in the UK, some Muslims will press for the rest to follow, including the institutionalized subjugation of non-Muslims.” How do you propose to stop that without offending their religious consciences? At what point does appeasement and accommodation stop?

And one more besides: given the BBC (updates 11, 18,19) is reporting today that the ABC is shocked at the reaction from within his own church (what? doesn’t care that Hizb ut Tahrir thinks he’s wonderful?), would he be advocating that they be punished for “thoughtless and cruel words” against him?

The ArchBishop is exactly what is causing the demise of traditional Britain and values. He is a major part of the problem. Perhaps more importantly he should ask, ‘why are people NOT going to church anymore? Why are churches being closed throughout the country and Commonwealth countries?’ The Church of England is finished and (as an Anglican) sadly, I say, the sooner the better!