Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Archbishop

The furor over the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments on Sharia law has been astonishing. I don't believe many people have read his lecture or even the transcript of his interview on the BBC

I have read both. I won't even attempt to summarize his lecture. It is an academic paper in an arcane area in which I have no expertise. Had it not been publicized on BBC radio, no one would have been aware of it. Most people who happened upon it would have given up reading it after the first paragraph. It is written in an academic style, full of subordinate clauses and parentheses, which does not make for easy understanding. To my mind it is badly written, since it seeks to obfuscate rather than aid understanding. I firmly believe that among the 1000 lawyers who were listening for hour to his lecture, fully two-thirds would have slumbered for part of the period.

The BBC interview is more accessible though itself not a model of clarity. Here is a quote that gets to the nub of the problem

"What we don't want I think is either a stand-off where the law squares up to religious consciences over something like abortion or indeed by forcing a vote on some aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the Commons, as it were, a secular discourse saying 'we have no room for conscientious objections'; we don't want that, we don't either, I think, want a situation where because there's no way of legally monitoring what communities do, making them part of public process, people do what they like in private in such a way that that becomes a way of intensifying oppression within a community and that happens; that happens. So how does the law engage critically and intelligently – the law of the land – with the custom, the imperatives, the principles of distinctive religious communities? It's a large question, much larger than the question about Islam and I think it's a question which the Church can quite reasonably be thinking about."

In other words what he is saying is that it is wrong to impose laws on people that do not take account of people's religious beliefs. I don't think I could live in a community which made it compulsory for doctors practicing in obstetrics to perform abortions. That's why the Abortion Act of 1967 contained a clause that allowed doctors to opt out for religious reasons.

There are also areas where the Law has no interest in what religious communities do. How many times should a priest genuflect before an alter. How exactly should an animal be killed to make meat halal? How many yards of cloth should go into a turban? And so on. The religious communities must be allowed to decide these things for themselves. But, and it's a big but, what they decide must not conflict with the human rights of the people at large. That's what he means by "we don't ... want a situation where because there's no way of legally monitoring what communities do".

There are certain conflicts that have arisen because of the tensions between community rules and the law of the land that show that such problems have not always been addressed. A good example would be in recent legislation defending the rights of gays. Catholic adoption agencies were not granted exemption that would allow them to refuse permission to place children with gay couples. The Bishop of Hereford was recently penalized for failing to give a job to a gay man even though he regarded homosexuality as something forbidden by the Bible. There are many other issues. Animal rights activists might well have a view on how animals are slaughtered for halal meat. There was the whole upset about the veil.

It is clear that religious beliefs can come into conflict with secular beliefs and I think that the Archbishop was trying to draw attention to this problem. By emphasizing the Islamic aspect of this, I suspect he was trying to avoid the charge of special pleading for Christians, but I believe it was a naive and silly decision.

Since 7/7 Britons have been afraid of the Moslems in out midst. Press referrals to Islam have concentrated on the abuses of civilized behavior committed by primitive Islamic societies like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Palestine etc. The countries may be rich in oil money or possess nuclear weapons, but they are still culturally primitive.

Sharia law, argues the Archbishop, is a way of looking at law - derived from the Koran. How that is codified is a cultural response. Primitive societies interpret Sharia in a way that is incompatible with modern Britain. But not to realize that the very mention of Sharia would connotate with amputations and beheadings demonstrates that the Archbishop's unworldliness is a serious defect for a man in his position.

1 comment:

H Paul Garland said...

Religious and community leaders must take into account how the general public will react to what they say. Especially what they say when it is done in a public context.

I always admired him before, but now I think he doesn't understand how important the public's perception is.

Probably in a few months or a year when this has sort of blown over, he should go ahead and retire.