It’s open season on Islamophobia again. All it takes is for a batty old archbishop to make a few ill-considered remarks about incorporating some aspects of Islamic law, or sharia, into English law [sic], and out troop all the old stereotypes and prejudices about Islam: floggings, stonings, mutilations, beheadings, religious extremism and absolutism, oppression of women, the imposition of the veil, and the ambition of (some) Muslims to impose sharia on Britain and the West in general. What a load of disgraceful hysteria that is a shame on our country.
Actually, ‘ill-considered’ is virtually the opposite of what Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words in a lecture on 7 February were, other than in the political sense: he should perhaps have realised the furious zeal that would be unleashed to stuff the genie he’d released back into its rightful confinement. The fact that the archbishop was saying something worthwhile is almost ‘proved’ negatively by the calibre of his opponents. First of all, GB [Gordon Brown], whose spokesman stated that the prime minister “believes that British laws should be based on British values”. What on earth is that supposed to mean? There is no such thing as ‘British law’ other than as an aggregate of English law (the legal system for England and Wales) and Scottish law. And are (should) the laws of England, Wales and Scotland (be) ‘based on’ British values, whatever they may be? And is a statement such as this even a refutation of Rowan Williams’s argument, in two ways: 1) no one is denying – least of all, Rowan Williams – that the laws of Britain should be consistent with the most fundamental principles of British civilisation and society; but the archbishop isn’t advocating incorporating certain elements of sharia directly into ‘British law’ and British statutes, so the conflict in this sense doesn’t arise; 2) many of the principles of sharia law in the areas Rowan Williams is talking about (such as marital disputes and family law) are already consistent with British law and values; and, indeed, on another definition, if Muslims as Muslims are to be accepted as British, does that not mean that their values must be taken into consideration in any determination of what ‘British values’ might mean?
And then there’s Trevor Philips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (he of the ironically ‘pro-Muslim’ revisionist British history that overrides, indeed overwrites, the separate ‘native’ histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). His take on it was that “the suggestion that a British court should treat people differently according to their faith – whether that’s being Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, is absolutely divisive, and I think, really rather dangerous”. Well, this is not what Dr Williams was suggesting, either. He wasn’t advocating that ‘British courts’ (sorry, slip of the tongue, English (or Welsh) or Scottish courts) should treat people differently according to their religion; he was saying that Muslims should perhaps have the right, under English law, to seek resolution and redress in certain types of cases (essentially, domestic and financial), if they wish, through sharia-type procedures, all under the auspices and control of the English legal system. What is divisive about that? It’s not one law for Muslims and another for all the other British people. It’s an integration of limited aspects of sharia into English law, so as to guarantee that Muslims could resolve certain issues legally in accordance with their conscience and customs, while enjoying the same legal protections and rights as any other British citizen.
I’d call that integrationist and inclusive, not divisive. In fact, it’s people who are rigorously opposed to allowing for any kind of role for sharia or other religiously based laws and jurisdiction in British civic society who are divisive. As a Muslim, so the argument goes (and Blair in his time and Jack Straw have argued along these lines), you can reconcile your joint identities as British and Muslim only if you accept the ultimate supremacy of British law, indeed the rule of law, over all prescriptions and rules deriving from your own religious tradition that might place you in conflict with British laws and fundamental values; and sharia is seen as the example par excellence of such a code that is seen as conflicting with and alien to inherently British principles and values. You either accept British values, thereby subordinating your separate Muslim identity to a shared British identity founded on those values, or you don’t – in which case, in principle, you are forfeiting your right to be called a British citizen.
I think Rowan Williams was also attacking this narrow identification of British citizenship with uniform and monopolistic acceptance of the abstract and absolutist claim of the law to govern the lives of all citizens equally, without any right for particular groups of citizens to freely choose to regulate certain aspects of their lives differently, in accordance with particular customs or beliefs. As the archbishop stated: “The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural . . . this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities”.
This could almost be a description of the way in which calls for a distinct English nation and legislative body (parliament) are suppressed by the British state and value system that certain proponents such as GB (as I’ve argued elsewhere) wish to transform into a unitary British nation where the state is viewed as representing the sovereignty (absolute authority) of the British people: equality before a unitary ‘British’ law. Meanwhile, public expressions of Englishness are denied any official sanction; indeed, the state itself suppresses any reference to England as a nation within, but distinct from, Britain even when the sphere of its own activities is limited to England. And more fundamentally, the terms in which any officially accepted discussion regarding ‘shared values’ (what Dr Williams calls “shared goods and priorities”) is allowed to take place are defined exclusively as British; while English values and culture are marginalised and dismissed as merely the whims of private individuals. You can define yourself as English, just as you can be fundamentally Muslim, only in the privacy of your heart and your home; but officially, you’re British – or else, you are free to leave.
And this is why it’s particularly pernicious that the row that erupted over Rowan Williams’ lecture should have referred to the idea of accommodating Sharia within British law. No, Dr Williams’ lecture is entitled Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England. It’s an English matter, not British. English law already allows certain types of dispute to be resolved in civil, rather than legal, procedures under the terms of Orthodox Jewish law or, indeed, sharia; and the outcomes of such procedures are legally binding. What the archbishop is proposing is no more than a formalisation and extension of such arrangements so as to ensure legal oversight and improved guarantees that the rights and freedoms enshrined in English law are not overridden by the rulings of any given sharia court, which can vary according to the ethnic background and school of Islamic belief of each Muslim community.
Such a deviation from a uniform, legalistic Britishness on the part of English courts clearly cannot be tolerated. There is, after all, only one British law, nation and set of values for all. Well, there are not; but there will be if GB gets his way. Englishman beware: it may be Islamic law they’re excluding from Britain now, but it’ll be English law next. Perhaps that’s another trick that a written British constitution will pull off: the creation of a unified British law, superseding an English legal system based on tradition, precedent and the freedom to be different.