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Sharia and the Archbishop of Canterbury

[Correction: Upon review of the audio of the interview, it turns out that Williams did indeed claim that Sharia is "unavoidable" -- the editors.] Much has been made recently of Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams' comments in an interview with the … Read More

By / February 18, 2008

[Correction: Upon review of the audio of the interview, it turns out that Williams did indeed claim that Sharia is "unavoidable" -- the editors.]

Much has been made recently of Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams' comments in an interview with the BBC, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury was widely interpreted as endorsing the idea that the adoption of Sharia — the informal and sometimes internally inconsistent regulatory framework that forms the basis of Islamic religious law — in Britain is unavoidable.

Much of the reaction to Williams' comments is off-base.

Matt Wardman, a conservative writer, demonstrated that the storm was facilitated by the BBC’s desire to create a controversial narrative even before the Archbishop’s interview was finished. Further, the Archbishop didn’t use the word “unavoidable.” It was Williams' interlocutor who first used the word in a question, and the Archbishop merely gave a pithy one-word answer. And the elements of Sharia that Williams was discussing didn’t include criminal punishments such as stoning or amputation, but only elements of personal and financial law.

Moreover, judging from his later clarification, it appears that the Archbishop’s major concern was to show that a person’s religious sensibilities will sometimes lead him or her to try to opt-out of a secular legislative scheme. To this end he offered the examples of Muslims seeking to follow Sharia law in family, inheritance and some commercial matters, as well as the Orthodox Jewish Beth-Din courts. Williams' position, that non-devout people need not view such occasional withdrawals as anathema, is only natural for the leader of a religious community. By granting exemptions to other religions, after all, he benefits his own.

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