The debate about sharia poses bigger questions about law and society
Question to Archbishop Williams: Must we accommodate Islam or not, as Christians?
Archbishop: Must we accommodate Islam or not as Christians? Must I love my Muslim neighbour? Yes, without qualification or hesitation. Must I pretend to my Muslim neighbour that I do not believe my own faith? No, without hesitation or qualification. Must I as a citizen in a plural society work for ways of living constructively, rather than tensely or suspiciously with my Muslim neighbour? Yes, without qualification or hesitation.
– From the Questions and Answers following Archbishop Williams’s Lecture on “Civil and Religious Law in England,” 7th February 2008.
In 2008 Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke of an apparently “inevitable” accommodation of sharia law in the UK. His lecture, given at the invitation of the lawyers’ Temple Church to an audience of 1,000 in the Royal Courts of Justice, caused a storm of comment. To the general public, this foundational lecture “seemed by far his most momentous … contribution to public life,” as Rupert Shortt put it. The fear of Islam that fuelled the media’s response then has if anything been stoked since by reports from within the UK of radicalised young Muslims and (from a recent Panorama) of women seemingly sent home to violent husbands by sharia councils; an Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, addressing the role of such councils, is being piloted by Baroness Cox through the House of Lords.
If there is to be any understanding between our majority and our Muslim communities, we must first dissolve the reciprocal ignorance, fear and anger that distort relations between them. Islam and English Law (Cambridge University Press), a collection of essays that I have edited, has been written to promote honesty, understanding and mutual respect (even and especially where there are intractable differences) between communities which too rarely meet.
To discuss the book’s themes, Lord Williams himself was joined at the Temple Church on 3rd June 2013 by Professor Lizzie Cooke (Law Commission) and Professor Meleiha Malik (KCL); the panel was chaired by Stephen Hockman QC. Their opening presentations were followed by comments from Baroness Cox, Baroness Butler-Sloss (former President of the Family Division), Khola Hasan (Islamic Sharia Council), Amra Bone (Birmingham Sharia Council) and others. Some deep disagreements were revealed; so, throughout the discussion, was the possibility of thoughtful and constructive conversation between politicians, judges, sharia councillors and academics (each group with its own viewpoint, insights and recommendations), all seeking, where possible, common ground under the protection of English Law.
Williams’s presentation is published below; Cooke’s and Malik’s presentations will be published over the next two days.
There is an episode in Winnie the Pooh where Owl’s house is destroyed by a strong wind. As Pooh picks himself up from the wreckage he looks around and says, “Did I do that?” I think perhaps the audience understands that I have a certain fellow-feeling with Winnie the Pooh in this respect.
All I wish to do here is pick out three themes from the original lecture, to fine-tune them a little in response directly and indirectly to the excellent essays in Islam and English Law in a rather general way, and to open these themes up for further discussion.