Woe is Rowan
I have nothing to add to the predictable chorus of boos and demands for resignation that have greeted the Archdruid of Canterbury's - how shall I put this sensitively? - somewhat naive comment that the introduction of Sharia law for Muslims in Britain was "inevitable", desirable, and would help "community cohesion". Or that the law "needs to take account" of the fact that some Muslims might not relate to British legal principles.
Too fatuous for words, so I won't waste many. Is he unaware, I wonder, that Muslim law permits polygamy, or that the testimony of women is worth half that of men, or that while a man can divorce a woman by saying "I divorce you" three times a woman has to convince a panel of reactionary old men in beards that all the "divinely-established" conditions have been met? Or that it is the most fundamental principle of our jurisprudence (albeit one not often honoured where politicians are concerned) that all are equal under the law? Or that a similar proposal in Canada was defeated as a result of overwhelming opposition, not from secular liberals, but from Muslim women, many of whom were refugees from countries where Sharia operates and had experienced it at first hand? I doubt it. He's not ignorant. Stupid, yes, in a way that only the highly intelligent can be, but not ignorant.
So instead I'll just express my genuine sorrow that this once so promising leader has proved himself, yet again, such a booby.
I don't believe in the God he believes in, but I welcomed his appointment unreservedly. Here (by stark contrast with his uninspiring predecessor) was a man of rare quality, a genuine scholar and intellectual with a complex and subtle understanding of the relationship between religion and society. He combined, I thought, a deep love of Christian history and ritual with an appreciation of the best aspects of popular culture. He was also widely believed to be a liberal, a supporter of women priests and in favour of challenging the church's deep-seated aversion to gay people. On the few occasions that I've met Rowan Williams, I always found him thoughtful, charming, good-natured and kind, if a little unworldly.
He does, however, have a complete blind spot when it comes to radical Islam, seen for example in his bizarre reluctance to criticise the persecution of Christians in many Muslim countries. In his lecture last night, he acknowledged that there were indeed problems surrounding such matters as forced marriage, or the prohibition against converting from Islam, cultural but also religious traditions that flatly contradict Western notions of basic human freedom. Yet even as he acknowledged these issues, he managed, yet again, to downplay their significance:
As I have said, this is a delicate and complex matter involving what is mostly a fairly muted but nonetheless real debate among Muslim scholars in various contexts. I mention it partly because of its gravity as an issue in interfaith relations and in discussions of human rights and the treatment of minorities, partly to illustrate how the recognition of what I have been calling membership in different but overlapping sets of social relationship (what others have called 'multiple affiliations') can provide a framework for thinking about these neuralgic questions of the status of women and converts.
"Neuralgic" here means, presumably, that it gives him a headache. He knows that, at a basic level, forced marriages and death sentences for apostasy are wrong. Yet such is his intellectual commitment to inter-faith relations and, perhaps, his friendships with prominent Muslim "faith leaders", that he can't quite bring himself to admit it. He prefers to speak in generalities and at the level of abstraction. But life does not take place on so elevated a plane. We are talking about real people who would be really affected by, for example, the decisions of a Sharia court in matters of divorce, child custody and inheritance. We are talking about communities in which power is overwhelmingly in the hand of male religious conservatives: to speak of "free consent" to Sharia in such cases is almost meaningless.
A close reading of his lecture reveals that he does, to some extent, acknowledge these realities. But he doesn't seem to care: at least, not as much as he cares about being sensitive to the concerns of reactionary Muslim leaders. He could use his public platform to call for the release of the young Afghan journalist Sayid Pervez Kambaksh, under sentence of death for "blasphemously" downloading information about womens' rights. Instead he asserts that the Enlightenment principle of equality before the law is "not adequate to deal with the realities of complex societies".
What is it with Williams and fundamentalist Islam? Does he envy the Muslims their apparent certainty, perhaps, given that his own faith is so compromised and unclear? Does he think that supporting the desire for sectarian religious law in this country will somehow lead to greater "respect" being given to all religion? Is it just traditional Anglican self-hatred?
I don't know. It's puzzling. Puzzling and tragic. But the leader of the Church of England has ceased to speak either for the Church or for England. He should go.
Follow-up Post: Diabolically Clever