Archbishop 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.
Simon 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.