FaithWorld

Trying to figure out what Rowan Williams is saying

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.

Rowan Williams says some sharia in Britain unavoidable

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams 16 April 2007//Mike CasseseArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, has said the introduction of some aspects of sharia, Islamic law in Britain, was unavoidable. Other religions enjoyed tolerance of their laws in Britain, he told the BBC, and he called for a “constructive accommodation” with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes.

Williams stressed that “nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that’s sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.

There are ways of looking at marital dispute, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them. In some cultural and religious settings they would seem more appropriate.” He also said that the argument that “there’s one law for everybody … I think that’s a bit of a danger“.

Preparations under way for Vatican-Muslim meeting

St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 24 Dec. 2007/Max RossiPreparations are under way for a planned visit to the Vatican by representatives of the “Common Word” Muslim appeal for a theological dialogue between Christianity and Islam. This group of Muslim scholars and leaders got to be known as the “138″ because that was the number of initial signatories, but the total has grown to 221, so that label is a bit confusing now. Anyway, veteran vaticanista Sandro Magister informs us that five Muslim representatives were at the Vatican early this week to start preparing for the visit expected to take place in the next month or so. One interesting aspect is simply the geographical mix of people involved — they come from Turkey, Britain, Jordan, Libya and Italy.

Discussion of this initiative continues apace.

The conservative U.S. Catholic author George Weigel argues that the”Common Word” authors “seemed to be trying to change the subject ” in their statements about the planned dialogue because they did not address what Pope Benedict cited as discussion points when he addressed the Roman Curia in December 2006. In that speech, Benedict saidKing Hussein Bin Talal Mosque in Amman, 18 Sept. 2007/Muhammad Hamed Muslims and Christians had to “counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations” and “welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognise these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.”

In his weekly column, the National Catholic Reporter‘s Vatican expert, John Allen, has a long interview with Father Thomas Michel S.J., one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam. Allen notes two interesting points Michel makes:

Spokesman says Karzai has last word in Afghan blasphemy case

Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 24 Jan. 2008/Wolfgang RattayReports so far about the death penalty against journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh have said that President Hamid Karzai could pardon him if the sentence is upheld by the Afghan courts. Now, a presidential spokesman has said that the president must confirm or reject any death sentence before it is imposed. So if this case goes down to the wire, Karzai will have to decide one way or the other. That sounds positive for Kambakhsh, because Karzai (no matter what he thinks about the verdict) is presumably open to pressure from Western allies not to carry out the sentence.

Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak has said he doubts Kambakhsh will be executed. There has been a demonstration in Kabul demanding freedom for the young journalist, whose brother Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi wrote an article for IWPR about it.

This new twist comes a few days after the Afghan Senate withdrew its statement of support for the death sentence on blasphemy charges for Kambakhsh. A spokesman said simply that the publication of the statement was “a technical error.” Actually, the Senate has no authority to approve or reject a court decision, so it had no business commenting on the verdict in the first place.

Q&A: Karen Armstrong on Pakistan, Islam and secularisation

Karen Armstrong at an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, 3 Feb. 2008/Mian KursheedKaren Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.

Q:You were last in Pakistan in 2006. What brought you back this time?

A: There is a really poignant hunger here, as well as in other parts of the Muslim world, to hear a friendly Western voice speaking appreciatively of Islam. It is a sad thing for me that this should be such an unusual event, but given the precarious state of relationships between so-called Islam and the West it seems something that is important to do.

Q: Pakistan seems to be a crucial place for the future of Islam at the moment. How do you see the impact of events in Pakistan in terms of developments in Islam as a whole?

French student imams study at Catholic university

Imams at the Grand Mosque of Paris, 31 Aug. 2004/Victor TonelliFrance’s long-awaited programme of university training for Muslim prayer leaders and chaplains was launched this week — at the Catholic university in Paris. We wrote about this not too long ago when the project was announced. It was third time lucky for Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Muslim Council and rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, who had earlier tried in vain to get the Sorbonne and another section of the University of Paris interested in the project. The Institut Catholique de Paris finally stepped up to take on the project, which the French government has been encouraging for several years now as a way to ensure imams in France are properly educated. It thinks the fact that 3/4 of the 1,200 imams in France are not French citizens, 1/3 of them don’t speak French and almost all have little or no real religious training is a potential source of radical ideology.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of ParisAccording to Sophie de Ravinel in Le Figaro, the average age of those on the programme is about 40 and just over half of them are French citizens. The rest come mostly from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. Three women — two of them wearing headscarves — are among the students. “Twenty of the 25 students come from the Grand Mosque of Paris. Among them is Abdelkader Khali, a 52-year-old computer specialist born in France. This future chaplain, son and grandson of French officiers, wants to defend ‘an open, tolerant and enlightened Islam’ in the army.”

The imam training project never got off the ground at the Sorbonne and the other section of the University of Paris because professors there thought it would violate laïcité, France’s legal separation of church and state. But from the start, the project foresaw all theological training at the Grand Mosque of Paris. The university was meant to teach secular subjects, such as French law, history and sociology. The idea was that the university education would round out the Islamic training the imams got at the Grand Mosque and give them a recognised university degree. It sounded like a reasonable idea, but laïcité got in the way.

Turkish tempers flare as headscarf reform nears

Neslihan Akbulut of women’s rights group AKDER, 31 Jan. 2008/Fatih SaribasAnyone looking at Turkish newspapers or television these days would be forgiven for thinking Turkey was in a deep political crisis over government plans to lift a decades-old ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities. The two sides — the secular Turks who long held sway here and the newly empowered pious Turks — are debating the issue in the winner-take-all way Turks like to talk politics. The liberal daily Radikal found the tension rising so much that it ran a front page headline this week reading “Republic of Fear” with a reprint of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” on the cover.

Readers abroad might ask what all the fuss is about. After all, Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country with a vibrant democracy. But the headscarf goes to the very heart of Turkey’s complex identity. For a feature on the headscarf issue, I spoke to devout and secular women and heard two diametrically opposed views. The devout women, some of whom had been expelled from universities because of the headscarf, said covering their Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, 29 Jan. 2008/Umit Bektashair was all about personal and religious freedoms. “I wear the headscarf, my cousin doesn’t and we go out to family dinners. It is no big deal,” one said. Many secular women feel their rights will be curtailed if the ban is lifted since — they fear — they will eventually be forced to wear the Islamic headscarf.

Male opinion can be just as split. Secular men say that easing the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities would weaken the current separation of state and religion. The pious Muslims — including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan — say wearing the headscarf is a personal freedom and a right, just like secular women have the right not to wear it.

So maybe it wasn’t just an Irish joke…

A Catholic priest with a chalice for Mass wineLooks like a story our Dublin office filed back in November wasn’t just an Irish joke.

Catholic priests in Ireland complained last year that tougher laws on drinking and driving meant they would easily go over the limit just by saying mass a few times in one day. Priests in rural areas often drive to several villages every Sunday to say mass, during which drinking a small quantity of wine is an essential part of the ritual.

Bloggers naturally had a field day with this one. “Eucharist could mean ‘water into fine‘,” one wrote. “No more ‘one for the road‘ for Irish priests,” said another. A third asked if drinking was part of a priest’s job description. “Only here in Ireland and only with the Roman Catholic Church could such a story arise,” one concluded.

Blasphemy and the Beast as Britain debates church-state ties

British judges leave an annual service at Westminster Abbey in London, 3 Oct 2005/Stephen HirdAmong the idiosyncrasies of British life is the fact that this secularised open society has an established church and a law banning blasphemy against it. This anomaly was back in the headlines this week when a member of Parliament tried to abolish the blasphemy law with an amendment to a bill on crime and immigration. With the issue back on the table, another MP submitted a motion to disestablish the Church of England. By a coincidence some might see as a warning, it was listed as motion #666 — the number of the Beast in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, associated with Nero, the Antichrist and other opponents of Christianity.

Change is coming, but it won’t be apocalyptic. After heading off the amendment on the blasphemy ban, the government has pledged to scrap the outdated law against “scurrilous vilification” of the faith after consultation with the Church of England. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has co-signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph advocating the abolition of a ban “in clear breach of human rights law.” The Church of England has signalled it could accept abolition if the government proceeds with caution.

(UPDATE Jan 12: Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, later said the Church of England “is not going to resist the repeal of the blasphemy laws given their awkward and not very workable legacy at present.”)

Science helps religion in stem cell debates

A microscopic view of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells.Science and religion are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, especially by the “new atheists“, but the real picture has always been more complex. The latest breakthrough in stem cell research shows how quickly opposing sides can become allies. On Nov. 20, two research teams announced they had transformed ordinary skin cells into stem cells without destroying human embryos in the process. That meant that scientists could solve an ethical dilemma they had effectively created when they began using human embryos to produce stem cells.

Religious groups critical of embryonic stem cell research immediately hailed the breakthrough as an advance that opened the door to ethnical use of these potential wonder cells. They have now begun to use it as a welcome argument to bolster their positions in disputes on the issue. This must be happening in quite a few places, but here are two examples that show how science is helping religion in this case.

In Germany, the Roman Catholic Church has severely criticised the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party for agreeing to loosen tight restrictions on embryonic stem cell research there. The law bars German scientists from working on stem cell lines developed after January 1, 2002. Researchers say this is hampering their work and want the cut-off date to be moved up to 2007.