Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury. As such, he is the head of the Church of England and the “spiritual head” of the Anglican Communion, the third largest Christan denomination in the world after Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. He should know better than to make silly comments in public, but on February 7th, Dr Williams told an interviewer on BBC Radio 4’s “World at One” show that “that the UK has to ‘face up to the fact’ that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system” and that “adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion”. Allow me to repeat that: the Archbishop of Canterbury said that Britain should adapt some parts of Sharia law to “help maintain social cohesion”.
I simply can’t believe that anyone would think this, much less the head of the Church of England. In my mind I had written an lengthy rejoinder to the Archbishop’s ramblings, but I simply couldn’t come up with anything eloquent enough. I do have some specific issues that I’d like to bring up, however.
The first has to do with the “slippery slope” theory. If the Archbishop feels so strongly about adopting parts of Sharia law… why stop there? Why not bring back ecclesiastical courts for Christians? Why not set up Beth din courts for Jews? There are a lot of Indians living in Britain, so why appease only those of the Islamic faith? Set up some Hindu courts for the others. And hey, while we’re at it, why not set up courts for Sikhs and Buddhists too? Hell, in a recent government census, 390,127 Britons listed “Jedi” as their religion (which would make the “Jedi Religion” more popular than Sikhism, Judaism, and Buddhism in the UK); I’m sure that the British government could work out some kind of licensing deal with Lucasfilm to allow the creation of “Jedi Courts” in the UK. I’m getting a bit silly here, but the point remains: where does one draw the line? Muslim extremists in the UK would want everything to be done in Sharia courts, which leads me to my second point…
Equal Protection Under The Law. In the United States of America, part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that “no state shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws“. As Wikipedia notes, this amendment was “an attempt to secure the promise of the United States’ professed commitment to the [Declaration of Independence’s] proposition that ‘all men are created equal’ by empowering the judiciary to enforce that principle against the states”. What this means (in theory) is that no state can have any law that selectively targets one group over another. An American state cannot, for example, have a law which states that “people of European decent are immune to the death penalty for murder; all other people are subject to the death penalty for such a crime”. In practice, this is somewhat more complex. For example, at the height of the “crack cocaine” epidemic in the mid 1980s, many states passed laws severely punishing the possession and\or sale of crack cocaine. Since lower-class blacks were far more likely to use crack than middle-class whites, many civil rights leaders said that those laws were unconstitutional.
At any rate, although equal protection cases are usually quite complex, the end result of the 14th Amendment is that everyone is to be treated equally under the law. Although Britain has no 14th Amendment, common law dictates that it should be so in the absence of a written law. And what the adoption of Sharia law would do is absolutely destroy any semblance of equal protection in the United Kingdom. Rights that took a thousand years to obtain are simply to be thrown out the window of Lambeth Palace. A Christian man that strikes his wife might be sentenced to six months in jail; a Muslim man, facing the same charges in a misogynistic Sharia court, might have his case dropped completely. One law for Muslims, another for everyone else. And that will just not do.
Another reason I didn’t write a much longer article than this is because of this Slate article. It summarizes far better than I ever could the “end result” of the Archbishop’s willingness to accept Sharia law in Britain:
Picture the life of a young Urdu-speaking woman brought to Yorkshire from Pakistan to marry a man – quite possibly a close cousin – whom she has never met. He takes her dowry, beats her, and abuses the children he forces her to bear. She is not allowed to leave the house unless in the company of a male relative and unless she is submissively covered from head to toe. Suppose that she is able to contact one of the few support groups that now exist for the many women in Britain who share her plight. What she ought to be able to say is, “I need the police, and I need the law to be enforced.” But what she will often be told is, “Your problem is better handled within the community.” And those words, almost a death sentence, have now been endorsed and underwritten—and even advocated—by the country’s official spiritual authority.
(If you think that “Honor Crimes” aren’t that big a deal in the UK, I suggest that you read this (PDF) report, which suggests that the “murder and beating of women, genital mutilation, forced marriage, and vigilante methods employed against those who complain” are running rampant in the British Muslim community.)
So – what does the Archbishop think about the issue of “equal protection”? He told the interviewer that
[A]n approach to law which simply said ‘there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts’ – I think that’s a bit of a danger.
Once again, let me reiterate that. The Archbishop of Canterbury is suggesting that one secular court system isn’t good enough for modern Britain. It’s hard enough to fathom how a religious leader can feel that way. But take away his chasuble and miter and underneath Williams is an Englishman (well, Welsh actually). And that’s what bothers me the most about all this.
Britain is the country that gave us the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and common law. The country that gave us trial by jury of our peers, the concept of private property, the right to petition the government and the freedom of the press. The country that gave us Shakespeare, the Authorized Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. The country that gave us Roger Bacon, John Wycliffe, Thomas Moore, Margaret Cavendish, John Locke, Samuel Clarke, David Hume, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, among others. This is the country that threw off the shackles of Catholicism and fought off the Spanish Armada. Millions of Britons, led by men from Francis Drake to Lord Nelson to the Duke of Wellington to Bernard Montgomery, died in armies and navies freeing people they didn’t know from the tyranny of dictators like Philip II, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. This is the country that, despite the stain of colonialism, brought modern education, railroads, telegraphs and medicine to millions of people in India and Africa. This is the country that outlawed slavery in Britain in 1772, outlawed the transport of any slaves on British ships in 1807, and outlawed slavery itself in most of the rest of the British Empire in 1833. In fact, Britain did its damndest to outlaw slavery everywhere on planet Earth at that time. Imagine: one nation using its considerable military and economic might to stop something just because it felt that the practice, however profitable, was morally wrong. Yet somehow the glorious system that created all this just isn’t good enough for Rowan Fucking Williams.
(As an aside, guess which nations were the last to outlaw slavery? Better yet, guess which religion those people were? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism or Taoism or Paganism or even Atheism).
To give you one last look at the moral distortion field that Williams operates in, noted British\American author and journalist Christopher Hitchens – himself an outspoken atheist and antitheist – discusses in Vanity Fair how ran in to Williams at Café Milano, a fashionable restaurant in Georgetown. I’ll quote Hitchens himself:
The archbishop’s church is about to undergo a schism. More than 10 conservative congregations in Virginia have seceded, along with some African bishops, to protest the ordination of a gay bishop in New England. I ask him how it’s going. “Well”—he lowers his voice—”I’m rather trying to keep my head down.” Well, why, in that case, I want to reply, did you seek a job that supposedly involves moral leadership?
The fact that one of the most famous atheists in the world can see the Archbishop’s failings should give anyone pause, much less anyone who is at all interested in saving the Anglican Communion.