Marking British Values

In a presidential address to the Church of England’s national assembly earlier last week, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, apologized for any “unclarity” in statements he had made regarding Shariah, or Muslim law, and the British judicial system. He first discussed the two systems in a radio interview ahead of a lecture to the Royal Court of Justice—part of a series of talks on the general theme of “Islam in English Law.” He purported the idea of social cohesion between Shariah and the British legal system, claiming that “certain provisions of [Shariah] are already recognized in our society and under our law.”

Subsequent media outcry in Britain has painted a picture of the deplorably low tolerance some nations have for religious ideas. It has revealed a rigid conformity to secularism, a sense of blind nationalism and a lamentable distrust of the other belief systems.

The Archbishop merely suggested the coexistence of another ethical set of laws in the public sphere. Although there is an established national church in the U.K., the tangible effect of religion on contemporary culture has faded, mirroring neighbors such as France. And indeed, Shariah is intensely rooted in the everyday existence of Muslims, so to suggest that there may be similarities between British law and Islamic religious mores seems farfetched at first. However, there is nothing abhorrent about showing some progressive thought on the presence other religions in a country’s national makeup. As the leader of this national church, the Church of England, Williams exhibited appropriate religious tolerance by stressing the importance of multiculturalism through this speech.

Furthermore, although Williams’ efforts to introduce dialogue between different cultural codes were well-received by some Muslim leaders, other Anglicans were ignorantly critical. This dialogue is crucial, since Islam is the second largest religion in Britain. Nevertheless, echoing the calls for resignation after this speech, Church of England General Synod member Alison Ruoff said, “He is a disaster for the Church of England. He vacillates, he is a weak leader and he does not stand up for the church.” Similarly, there was a typical reaction from British tabloid The Sun, exclaiming that Williams’ claims were “a huge propaganda coup for extremists plotting to end centuries of the British way of life.” This evidently rash reaction to Williams’ comments was also implicitly Islamophobic and intolerant. It was indicative of a reluctance to embrace plurality in favor of the textbook adherence to either the authority of the Anglican Church or the norm of secular culture.

Other critics responded that Shariah compromises true British values. The Labour government even released an absurd statement reiterating the Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s opinion that “British law should apply in this country, based on British values.” The government introduced a package of measures designed to define what it means to be British last summer, including a definition of British citizenship, formulation of a “bill of rights and duties” for citizens—similar to a constitution—and even notions of a “British Day.”

Given the cynical national response to activities like this, Prime Minister Brown’s statement is ridiculous. It asserts a narrow-minded idea of British nationalism that hardly exists to begin with. A recent submission to the The Times’ competition for the best British slogan perhaps put it best: “Once Mighty Empire, Slightly Used.” It would be far more worthwhile to concentrate on assimilating the multiplicity of the nation’s ethnicities and religions, through tolerance of ideas like Williams’, rather than maintain an unbending nationalistic tone.

This backlash against Williams’ moderate suggestions derives from an inherent misunderstanding of what the Archbishop’s intentions were. He recognized that certain provisions of Shariah were already acknowledged by society, not that the U.K. should adopt Shariah as a “parallel jurisprudence.” For example, Williams said individuals could resolve aspects of specified matters such as martial law and regulation of financial transactions under the jurisdiction of their choice, allowing British Muslims to forego choosing between cultural and state loyalties. That there is one law for everybody is an important part of the infrastructure of modern democratic states, but this should not disqualify accommodations for other affiliations.

The international media has heavily criticized harsher interpretations and practices of Shariah in the past. In some Islamic states, extreme punishments and misogynistic attitudes toward women are a reality. Heavy media criticism is thus fair in such cases, where Shariah sentences—such as punishment by stoning—veer from the embedded standards of human rights. Williams was not proposing a carte blanche for this set of laws. Merely, he wanted to express a confidence in the amalgamation of cultures, religion and loyalties.

An essential public issue in many countries is cultural tension. The Archbishop should be congratulated for highlighting the potential of plurality that Britain has in the realm of law and the more amorphous world of “values.” Contentious remarks will always induce a storm of media attention and differing reactions. Williams’ remarks, though, reflected a confidence in the potential of his country’s multicultural identity, and should be considered as such.

Emmeline D. Francis ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Mower Hall.