Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Rowan Williams and Islamic law/secularism

Been trying to get my head round the hoo-haa surrounding the Archbishop of Canterbury and his supposed statements about introducing some element of sharia law into the British system. This is especially interesting as a Malaysian since of course, we do have some form of a parallel legal system which has, nonetheless, been creaking under the strain of apostasy cases in recent years. It’s fairly impressive too that the Bearded One has managed to unite (some) conservative and liberal voices within the Anglican communion to speak out against him, outraged not a few Muslims, earned a gentle reprove from the Prime Minister’s office and even reportedly caught the Queen’s attention. All in a day’s work then...

Anyway, decided to attempt to read his lecture today before reading all the surrounding commentary. Rowan Williams is, of course, renowned as one of the world’s most gifted and dense academic theologians, even if he is rarely in concert with evangelical sympathies, so I expected this to be hard going. I remember reading somewhere that this lecture only had 132 sentences. Considering the lecture is over 6000 words long, that roughly works out to 47 words per sentence!

Some quotes from his lecture; me trying to make sense of it after every - :

“Even when some of the more dramatic fears are set aside, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about what degree of accommodation the law of the land can and should give to minority communities with their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes. As such, this is not only an issue about Islam but about other faith groups”
– the issue, as also shown by the title of the lecture: Civil and Religious Law in England.

“my aim is only, as I have said, to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state, with a few thought about what might be entailed in crafting a just and constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom.”
– bold mine, what he’s hoping to achieve in this lecture (very important to set his lecture in context!)

“If shar' designates the essence of the revealed Law, sharia is the practice of actualizing and applying it...”
– spirit and letter of the law?

“Thus, in contrast to what is sometimes assumed, we do not simply have a standoff between two rival legal systems when we discuss Islamic and British law. On the one hand, sharia depends for its legitimacy not on any human decision, not on votes or preferences, but on the conviction that it represents the mind of God; on the other, it is to some extent unfinished business so far as codified and precise provisions are concerned. To recognise sharia is to recognise a method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts rather than a single system”
– sharia has as its basis a doctrine of revelation from God, but this is not expressed in a simple code of regulations, rather it works itself out according to certain a priori principles. Hmmm, does this mean that he’s going to argue that sharia therefore has the ability to adapt in the light of differing socio-political contexts?

“Both historically and in the contemporary context, Muslim states have acknowledged that membership of the umma is not coterminous with membership in a particular political society: in modern times, the clearest articulation of this was in the foundation of the Pakistani state under Jinnah; but other examples (Morocco, Jordan) could be cited of societies where there is a concept of citizenship that is not identical with belonging to the umma. Such societies, while not compromising or weakening the possibility of unqualified belief in the authority and universality of sharia, or even the privileged status of Islam in a nation, recognise that there can be no guarantee that the state is religiously homogeneous and that the relationships in which the individual stands and which define him or her are not exclusively with other Muslims. There has therefore to be some concept of common good that is not prescribed solely in terms of revealed Law, however provisional or imperfect such a situation is thought to be. And this implies in turn that the Muslim, even in a predominantly Muslim state, has something of a dual identity, as citizen and as believer within the community of the faithful.”
- Being part of the umma or a Muslim disciple isn’t synonymous with citizenship. State not the same as being a mosque/church/temple, government not imams. Principled pluralism? i.e government must recognise Muslims are not just citizens, they are other things too, members of a certain faith community. State’s jurisdiction is not total.

“It also occurs when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity. There is a position – not at all unfamiliar in contemporary discussion – which says that to be a citizen is essentially and simply to be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state, in such a way that any other relations, commitments or protocols of behaviour belong exclusively to the realm of the private and of individual choice.”
- oooh, being sneaky here. Secular govts often say something along the lines of “you’re free to do anything you want in private, so long as it doesn’t break the law/harm others”. But RW seems to be implicitly questioning, is it as simple as that?

“If the law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour – for protest against certain unforeseen professional requirements, for instance, which would compromise religious discipline or belief – it fails in a significant way to communicate with someone involved in the legal process (or indeed to receive their communication), and so, on at least one kind of legal theory (expounded recently, for example, by R.A. Duff), fails in one of its purposes.”
- Wah, this is getting pretty philosophical. Actions cannot be so easily separated from intentions or being (ontology)? Context is important – why someone does what he does and under what circumstances need to be taken into account, but the law has not always been successful at distinguishing this, since it is often more concerned with only the mere action/behaviour. In this case, RW seems to be saying, more attention needs to be paid to the religious identity of a person, or at least not treat him merely as an individual, but a certain member of a faith-community. Although he isn’t saying that this is like a “get out of jail free card” – “oh, because my Muslim sensibilities dictate that I believe and therefore do this, so you can’t ordinarily enforce law X against me!”

3 potential objections:
1. “it leaves legal process (including ordinary disciplinary process within organisations) at the mercy of what might be called vexatious appeals to religious scruple”
– eg. what if a Muslim employee refused to handle a book of Bible stories? Is she just being overly fussy? RW’s answer, establish some sort of authority to distinguish between uninformed prejudice/nonsense and which is serious business.

2. “recognition of 'supplementary jurisdiction' in some areas, especially family law, could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women.”
- i.e isn’t it now easy to have a convenient excuse to do some really nasty things and defend myself by saying, hey, stay out of my business, you don’t understand the complex cultural-religious workings here? Won’t it be worse for eg., for women who might have enjoyed better rights without such a jurisdiction? RW’s answer: “no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.”

“In the particular case we have mentioned, the inheritance rights of widows, it is already true that some Islamic societies have themselves proved flexible (Malaysia is a case in point).”
– Just had to point that out since he mentioned Malaysia... :) Interestingly, he goes on to mention the far harder case of apostasy, and as far as I can make out, speaks in vague terms about some form of “basic ground rules”, acknowledges its complexity, and doesn’t really deal properly with this objection.

3. “supplementary jurisdictions is simply incoherent if we want to preserve the great political and social advances of Western legality”
- i.e everyone is equal before the law. RW’s answer, Aiyah, not so easylah! “But this set of considerations alone is not adequate to deal with the realities of complex societies: it is not enough to say that citizenship as an abstract form of equal access and equal accountability is either the basis or the entirety of social identity and personal motivation.” Back to the point that as human beings, we are not just citizens, but our identities are rooted in loads of different things – we are members of a family, of an ethnic group, of a religious group etc.

- At this point his lecture gets really, really dense as he tries to answer this particular objection. Not quite sure I get it at all, but he seems to be saying that instead of adopting the public/private distinction of the law which I mentioned earlier, it needs to be seen more dynamically, in constant conversation with various communities to make sure that they don’t become so isolated and take the law into their own hands while respecting their diversity. To do so, he appeals to the basis of “human dignity”.

“But to return to our main theme: I have been arguing that a defence of an unqualified secular legal monopoly in terms of the need for a universalist doctrine of human right or dignity is to misunderstand the circumstances in which that doctrine emerged, and that the essential liberating (and religiously informed) vision it represents is not imperilled by a loosening of the monopolistic framework.”
- so this is what he’s really trying to deal with, rather than simply “let’s allow Sharia law into Britain!”

I gave up on the last 750 words or so, but just quickly scanned through for his conclusion:
“In conclusion, it seems that if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of 'deconstruction' of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment. But as I have hinted, I do not believe this can be done without some thinking also about the very nature of law.”


Some thoughts
If I were listening to rather than reading this lecture, I would never have understood even 10% of it! No wonder he was so widely misunderstood, and I understand that RW owned up to “obscurity of expression”. Although I should also mention that I see some commentaries that dispute that he was misunderstood, rather, he was understood but still received a negative reaction. For eg., see this New Statesman commentary. The writer makes a great point – third paragraph from the end – about why a Christian leader, in light of his own beliefs about the revelation of God, would therefore support a legal system in which he must consider misguided and illegitimate. That does present a problem for the concept of principled pluralism (which, btw, although I have never done any thinking on stuff like this, is, I suspect, my subconscious default position). The same writer suggests that Williams real attack is on secularism, which I think is a fair enough point. He takes that negatively, but obviously, I don’t.

The other thing I don’t get is that Williams seems to assume throughout the lecture that some form of liberal sharia law would triumph rather than a “primitivist” (his word) version. How will that happen? And why would Muslims of any stripe want to listen to a Christian bishop on this point anyhow?

Still, this lecture highlights the complexity of the discussion, encompassing as it does everything from questions of assimilation/integration/national identity/multiculturalism, and I haven’t even included the legal and religious dimensions yet!

Finally, I know that this is an academic lecture and all, but RW didn’t seem to offer a distinctively Christian approach. Not that I mean he has to pepper his quotes with Scripture references, but simply that, given his role as the leader of the Anglican Church and not as a jurisprudence specialist, surely there might be more biblical reflection? No one would have been offended, if anything, it would be expected from a guy who heads up a church comprising of millions and millions of Christians.



Rowan Williams and sharia: A guide for the perplexed - This is regarded as the best and most detailed breakdown of the lecture.


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