Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) — An archbishop of Canterbury hasn’t found himself in this much trouble since Thomas Becket fell afoul of Henry II in 1170. Last week, Rowan Williams, the leader of the Church of England, stirred up a massive row by saying that elements of Shariah law, standard throughout the Muslim world, should be introduced in the U.K.
In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., Williams said it seems “unavoidable” that elements of Shariah law will have to be introduced in Britain. Why? Because that will be the only way to create cohesion between the growing Muslim community and the rest of the country.
Williams couldn’t have been more wrong.
You don’t produce cultural cohesion by allowing different laws for different ethnic or religious groups. You do that by having a robust and fair legal system that everyone in the community has to obey. If Williams doesn’t understand that, it is hard to see how he can claim moral leadership of the country.
Europe has been struggling to integrate large Muslim populations, with different traditions and ideas. In the 2006 elections in the Netherlands, there were calls to ban the burqa, the all-covering dress that some women wear. In 2004, the French Parliament introduced a law banning religious garb such as Islamic headscarves and other symbols from state schools. Muslim and non-Muslim communities are finding it hard to get along.
Now Williams has stepped into the debate — and in a very clumsy way. The resulting ruckus is certainly the most savage the Church of England has been embroiled in for many years. In the interview, Williams argued: “There’s a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law.”
True, he didn’t want some of the more barbaric features of Shariah introduced in Britain — no getting your hands cut off for burglary, or stoning adulteresses to death — but he did suggest that Shariah principles could be used in settling, for example, marital disputes.
Little will have prepared him for the firestorm of protest that created. “Bash the Bishop,” the Sun headline said. Britain’s biggest-selling daily newspaper urged readers to join its campaign to give the bishop the “boot.” The quality press was more restrained, but not much less damning. By the end of the week, Williams had put out a statement on his Web site trying to damp the brouhaha. “The Archbishop made no proposals for Shariah in either the lecture or the interview, and certainly did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law,” it said.
Exempt From Rules
It is too late for Williams to backtrack now.
Britain has about 2 million Muslims in a total population of 60 million. While not arguing that they should have their own laws or be exempt from the rules that apply to the rest of the country, Williams suggests that if Muslims want to settle marital or financial arguments according to their own customs, it should be allowed.
What’s wrong with that? After all, in a liberal, free society surely people should be able to do whatever they want so long as they aren’t hurting others.
Well, there are three reasons that Williams is wrong.
One, the law isn’t something you can pick or choose. It is fine for Muslims to wear the burqa — banning it is a step too far — just as it is fine for Jewish people to wear skullcaps, or Christians to wear crucifixes. People can wear what they want, eat what they want, and educate their children at whatever schools they choose. They don’t even need to speak English if they don’t want to. Those are all matters of personal preference.
State Within State
But you can’t start demanding a separate set of laws. The law is the glue that holds a nation together. If Muslims don’t follow the same laws as everyone else, then they don’t really inhabit the same country. They are establishing a state within a state, and that is hardly acceptable to the majority.
Next, there is already a sense of separateness among Muslim communities that doesn’t exist, for example, with the U.K.’s large immigrant groups of Polish, Caribbean or African origin. In a sense, that was what the debates on burqas and headscarves were about. They were physical symbols that one community wanted to seal itself off from the rest of society. Different laws would be an even more extreme manifestation of that. Separation, however, isn’t the way to bring societies together.
Lastly, Williams is meant to be leading the Church of England. Even if there was a case for introducing elements of Shariah law into Britain — and as it happens, there isn’t — then he would hardly be the person to make it. He should be defending his own faith, not promoting another one.
The archbishop of Canterbury should be someone who can lead cultural and spiritual debate. If he can’t do that, he can’t do the job. Williams has proved unable to do so. He may remain in office, but he has surrendered any claim to moral leadership. And without that, it would surely be better if he left now.
(Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Matthew Lynn in London at.
Last Updated: February 12, 2008 19:03 EST