I’m also backing the Bishop

8:10 am - February 13th 2008

by Sunny Hundal    

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I have a rule of thumb: if the Sun newspaper is running a campaign for something, it is generally a bad idea. It’s worked beautifully so far and its latest campaign to ‘Bash the Bishop’ is no exception. I make no apologies for this defence of Dr Williams.

First, let’s get the straw-man argument out of the way. I’m no fan of the sharia as it is intepreted now and have long recognised its bias against women. In fact I’m against religious interpretation by orthodox middle-aged men in general. I’ve also repeatedly pointed out how multiculturalism fails women, so I don’t need a lecture from the Sun or Daily Mail on feminism.

So what did he say, didn’t say and why the hell was the BBC coverage so bad?

What he didn’t say.
Did Dr Williams not recognise what sharia represents? Of course he did. He recognises most people know of it as, “repressive towards women and wedded to archaic and brutal physical punishments”. He points out that even Muslim scholars recognise the problem. He also points out that observing sharia does not have to compromise the law of the land. He even recognises that “Islamic primitivists” like Sayyid Qutb (popular with the MCB crew) contest this previous claim. His choice of words is indicative.

Doesn’t he recognise the danger posed by multiculturalism? Actually he does. He says that a “high legal regard” paid to “communal identity” leaves the law “at the mercy of vexatious appeals to religious scruple.” Again, he brings up forced marriages to illustrate this. Unaware of the social implications he is not. He also warns in going too far with “such sensitivity”. There can’t be any “blank cheques given to unexamined scruples” he says, essentially signalling that we need more regulation of religious practices.

What about the danger to women? He explicitly mentions this too, saying that “supplementary jurisdiction” could have “serious consequences for the role and liberties of women”. He adds that allowing “a minority group to administer its affairs” should not “effectively take away the rights [that society] acknowledges as generally valid.”

What about those ‘problematic’ parts of sharia? He says: “In a society where freedom of religion is secured by law, it is obviously impossible for any group to claim that conversion to another faith is simply disallowed or to claim the right to inflict punishment on a convert.” Pretty clear about that then too.

What he did say
The Archbishop’s aim was essentially to tease out “the rights of religious groups within a secular state”. That is his role after all. One could disagree with the extent of the role the Church of England or other religious bodies play in the public life of those who hold their faith dearly, but most of his critics were not focused on that.

Most inter-faith dialogue is very banal and non-controversial. The Archbishop wanted to change that by asking tricky questions about sharia in modern Britain and the danger it poses to unprotected groups like Muslim women.

Let’s be clear about something. We already have some elements of sharia in this country: halal meat and ‘Islamic banking’ are obvious examples. We also have separate religious legal provisions for a religious minority – orthodox Jews. English law states that any third party can be agreed by two sides to arbitrate in a dispute. In the case of orthodox Jews it can be the Beth Din. Or it could be a sharia court (shock horror!). The law already offers this option, see? To clarify: civil disputes can be handled in such a way, but exceptions are not made for criminal cases.

If one is genuinely worried about the rights of Muslim women, wouldn’t it be better to ask questions about current practices, that may be loaded against women, than stick our heads in the sand and pretend they don’t take place? As the Archbishop said quite clearly, there is a no guarantee of “an absence of conflict” between the civil rights afforded by the state and by religious courts. It is time we confronted this, for the sake of those women?

Disagreeing with ABC
That is not to say I agree with the Archbishop’s views entirely. One could argue that his reasoning is an assault on secularism.

One could also disagree that there should be provisions for “conscientious disagreement” when work conflicts with a person’s faith. This is not so straightforward for lefties (like me) who support military personel objecting to going into wars they think are immoral and illegal.

One could also disagree on the viability of sharia in Britain itself, as Ali Eteraz and Asim Siddiqui explain. When Muslims in Canada wanted parity with Jewish courts in 2004, the Canadian government moved to get rid of all of them. We could have a debate on whether this is the way forward for Britain.

The media coverage
Instead of teasing these issues out we had politicians and commentators who couldn’t be called anything else but complete idiots claiming that there should only be one law in Britain, without mentioning our existing system. If we want to stop third-party arbitration, along with the disestablishment of the CoE, then it should be stated clearly without all this mock-horror about sharia.

I was most incensed however by the BBC’s coverage, which essentially involved a correspondents standing outside the Church claiming every 5 minutes that the Archbishop was yet to clarify his remarks. If they wanted clarification why didn’t they ask someone with half a brain to go through the speech? It simply joined in the witchunt.

We can expect the tabloids to launch foolish tirades but the Beeb’s biased and sensationalist coverage was sickening. I felt like throwing my shoe at the presenter’s head and asking about their own director-general’s recent promise that its news was going to be less sensationalist. There was no attempt in its mainstream coverage to tease out what ABC was getting at.

I don’t buy the view that Dr Williams should not have raised this debate. Sharia arbitration already takes place in Britain in a framework long used by Orthodox Jews. Isn’t it better to shed some light on what goes on and ask questions on whether they help women? Is there something wrong with trying to have a sophisticated debate without worrying how the tabloids will spin it?

Archbishop Rowan Willians has no reason to apologise. I fully support his right to raise the issue. Now, who’s with me?

Updated: Others with similar thoughts:
Tom – Backing the Bishop
Bloggerheads – Back the Bishop
Chicken Yoghurt – The reinterpretation game
Crooked Timber – Will no one rid me…
Blood & Treasure – Howling with the pack
Beau Bo D’or – Tabloid (and Broadsheet) frenzy – Let us misrepresent
Obsolete – The last word (hopefully) on Williams
Lenin’s Tomb – Secularism is a chimera: my posish on the Archbish
Dave Cole – In defence of the Archbishop of Canterbury
Big Sticks and Small Carrots – An informed electorate
Lee Griffin – The Archbishop of Canterbury, a politician and a tabloid journalist walk in to the bar…

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Our democracy ,Religion

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Reader comments

*raises his hand*

I’ll be eventually posting about this some time in the next couple of days too now the story seems to have largely run its course.

Of course I fully suport his right to raise the issue. I’m actually quite glad he did, as it’s been an interesting and useful debate. I still don’t agree with the points he was making, though.

I don’t see anything wrong with him raising the issue, even if I disagree with almost everything he says. It’s a freedom of speech thing, isn’t it?

There are, it seems to me, two ways of charitably interpreting Williams’s speech (there is the third OMG SHARIA ARCHBISHOP WANTS TO CUT PEOPLE’S HANDS OFF interpretation, but let’s leave the moronic majority out of this).

One interpretation (which the church is currently saying is the right one) is that he made an entirely unexceptionable speech pointing out that the law currently allows supplementary courts under the arbitration act, and sharia could be included in that. The problem with this interpretation is that it’s hardly worth an archbishop making a trite speech to say “people ought to be allowed to do things which are legally permitted”, and “the law is not the only thing which regulates our conduct”.

The other interpretation, which is Martin O’Neill’s, and I think is absolutely right, is that it was an attack on secularism, though being an archbishop in the C of E rather than a cardinal, it was expressed in such opaque “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” language that you have to do some work to discern any meaning. But what he’s arguing for is that religious claims should be given weight in secular law, and that only “serious” religious claims (i.e. those which a suitable religious authority recognises as legitimate and serious) should be so considered. On the one hand legal communitarianism, on the other hand you don’t have to belong to a community, because you can choose whether to belong or not, apart from when you can’t choose, but let’s pretend you can choose, waffle waffle waffle. Had he used Catholicism or Judaism as an example rather than Islam, nobody would have noticed although it would still have been a profoundly illiberal speech.

Actually, how many people have actually been saying he doesn’t even have the right to raise the issue?

7. Guy Aitchison

I agree with you Sunny. Although I disagree with some of what the Archbishop said I’ve found this whole saga thoroughly depressing. The media just aren’t equipped to deal with subtelty at all. No debate, just denunciation. As you say even the BBC are at it. Very depressing…

Count me in, Sunny. How about a blog button?


Hear, hear.

Why don’t we all grow crazy beards in solidarity?

This is how Chaucer would have covered it.
(Bit too long but still quite funny.)


Crazy beards and bushy eyebrows!

Tom – Let’s do it. I was thinking about that. Can anyone knock something up?

“We also have separate religious legal provisions for a religious minority – orthodox Jews. English law states that any third party can be agreed by two sides to arbitrate in a dispute. In the case of orthodox Jews it can be the Beth Din.”

if anyone can pick anyone else to arbitrate for them and be bound by the result then it’s hardly ” separate religious legal provisions” is it

I suppose I do agree with The Bishop.
I haven’t read what he actually said, but I’ve heard the furore that the screaming masses have been, er, screaming and anyone would’ve thought that he’d suggested scrapping English law and implementing full sharia.
He didn’t did he?
I might be naive, but I cannot see this or a subsequent government allowing a parallel *criminal* law, for Muslims, Jews, Christians or bloody Jedii, or withdrawing protection of rights for groups of people (I’m not so naive to believe they wouldn’t do it for the population as a whole though). So what we’re left with is civil proceedings, and as loads of people have pointed out, we’re hardly lacking a precedent in groups of people, religiously organised or not, sorting themselves out one way or another, are we.
Ensuring that the people involved in the arbitration are there under their own free will and are treated fairly is the real issue but then what other reaction can you expect when the ‘M’ word is mentioned.


Wot Andrew said (11:57, 13 Feb).

Also that he wasn’t clear at all about what he wanted. He said what he didn’t want but not what he was calling for. He did not say specifically what the law does not already provide and what it should provide. There was little to no context, no examples.

It is that ‘unclarity’, as he put it, that provided opportunity for misunderstanding.

Finally posted, interesting to see the QT discussion around the subject, especially Caroline Flint’s ironic interpretation about people bringing controversy upon themselves with such statements. Pot, Kettle, Black?

Eamonn: if anyone can pick anyone else to arbitrate for them and be bound by the result then it’s hardly ” separate religious legal provisions” is it

The point is that the Beth Din and sharia are religiously recognised institutions within the Jewish and Muslim communities. I phrased it incorrectly – there aren’t separate provisions – more institutional support for such groups. The law is flexible enough to allow people the space to have their own arbitration mechanisms. Which makes this controversy all the more silly.

ukliberty – True, And I can’t read ABC’s mind to figure out what he wants. But I’m assuming he wanted lawmakers to get to grips with the idea that some religious arbitration is controversial and there was a danger women could be discriminated against. Maybe he was trying to get them to think about the issue and make up their own mind on how the law should approach the conflict (if it arose) between law of the land and religiously inspired arbitration.

17. douglas clark


Either you agree with this, I’d have thought:


Or you don’t.

Which is it?

Sunny, that seems reasonable, it’s just a shame Williams wasn’t more clear.

Certainly if the arbitration is unfair it can be appealed against. But my concern is that it won’t be the legal system letting down vulnerable people, but rather their ignorance of their rights, and deeply embedded obligations to their communities, to the extent that they strongly feel obliged to (1) take their dispute to religious arbitration rather than a more appropriate venue, and (2) accept the decision even if it is manifestly unfair.

These feelings, of course, aren’t limited to Muslims, although there may be parts of particular interpretations of sharia that are incompatible with the principles of the Arbitration Act or natural justice.

I’m not sure what we can do to protect those people. I suppose we can only look to education, integration and time.

Thanks for this, Sunny. I think there are a number of problems with what Rowan is saying, and I fear that his discourse is caught up in a wider one whereby his own religious institution and others are seeking a wider culture of exemption. But much of the response to what he said was hysterical and irrational, and the really important issues have been buried. I’ve written about this on Guardian CIF and OurKingdom (OpenDemocracy). Here’s one take from Ekklesia: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6726

yup, count me in too…i’ve been wanting an excuse to cultivate my bushy eyebrows for years… and i think he was right to raise the issue in the first place too.

An interesting analysis. However, even though one can rightly complain about media misrepresentation to some extent, the prime cause of this debacle was the complexity of the ABC’s prose and his unneccessary use of sharia as an example of what he was getting at. This would have been an explosive issue even if the BBC had acted differently.

He could have presented a much clearer and more tightly argued speech stating what he sees as the need for special exemptions for the religious conscience without even mentioning sharia. This debate would be a worthwhile one, although I hope it will conclude that faiths should not be given additional special exemptions and privileges. Actually it is the reverse that is needed.

His highlighting of sharia is even more suspect given that there is no consensus or general demand for sharia from within Moslem groups in the UK.

It does look as though he was aiming to exploit the position of other faith’s (principly Islam) in order to help erect defensive barriers around the CofE. He seemed to act from a similar motive in his recent (typically ambiguous) suggestion that the blasphemy law should be replaced by something broader.

However, I have some sympathy with his fears, the CofE does seem to be in terminal decline with major schism and loss of support. But putting up legislative barriers is not the answer.

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