My text for today is “Hold fast that which is good”: 1 Thessalonians 5:21. These are words I heard so regularly in prayers at my Anglican girls’ school that I have been unable to forget them. I draw them to the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to have forgotten them. At least, he seems to be losing his grip on what is good in this country and, indeed, to be throwing it away with both hands in his curious suggestion that aspects of sharia should be recognised in English law.
In an interview on Radio 4 last Thursday, Rowan Williams said that the introduction of parts of Islamic law here would help to maintain social cohesion and seems unavoidable. Sharia courts exist already, he pointed out. We should “face up to the fact” that some British citizens do not relate to the British legal system, he said, and that Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.
What he went on to say was more astonishing. He explained to the interviewer, in his gentle, wordy way, that a lot of what is written on this confusing subject suggests “the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody”. He went on: “That principle is an important pillar of our social identity as a western liberal democracy.” How true.
However, he continued: “It’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties, which shape and dictate how they behave in society, and the law needs to take some account of that.”
Stuff like this is bad for the blood pressure, but I listened on. “An approach to law which simply said there is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said . . . I think that’s a bit of a danger.”
What danger? And to whom? The danger, surely, is rather the archbishop and those who think like him, who seem unwilling to hold fast that which is good. What is good and best and essential about our society – it isn’t merely a matter of “social identity” – is the principle of equality before the law. That principle and its practice have made this country the outstandingly just and tolerant state it is; it is one of the last remaining forces for unity as well.
What is also good and essential to this country is the law itself. It has evolved over centuries from medieval barbarities into something, for all its faults, that is civilised. Our law expresses and maintains the best virtues of our society. Anybody who does not accept it does not belong here.
When other legal systems or other customs clash with ours, we prefer ours, to put it mildly. At least we should; what has troubled me for years is the way that exceptions and excuses tend to be made, in the name of multiculturalism, for practices of which we do not approve. Victoria Climbié’s terrible bruises were ignored because of assumptions about the cultural norms of African discipline. Last week it emerged that someone in government has sold the moral pass on polygamy: husbands with multiple wives in this country are now to get benefit payments for each wife.
In the midst of all this moral confusion and relativism, is the premier prelate in the land holding fast that which is good? Far from it. He is recommending multiculti legal cherry-picking, in which individuals would be free to choose the jurisdiction they preferred for certain matters. He even admits that his proposal introduces, “uncomfortably”, the idea of a market in the law, “a competition for loyalty”.
One encouraging sign is the almost universal fury that our foolish archbishop has aroused: he has miraculously united the irreconcilable in opposition to himself, from Christian extremists to mainstream Muslims, from Anglican vicars to godless Hampstead liberals, from Gordon Brown to backwoods Tories.
The archbishop and his few supporters insist that the media have misrepresented him and not many people have actually read the learned speech that he gave to a learned audience after his inflammatory radio interview. They are wrong. I haven’t seen any serious misrepresentation in the media, and reading his speech several times doesn’t exonerate him. Nor does it increase respect for his judgment, his command of English or his powers of ratiocination; he is woolly of face and woolly of mind.
In any case, you do not need to follow anybody’s argument to understand that legally recognising aspects of sharia is either unnecessary or undesirable. If the aspects in question accord with English law (the Anglican archbishop is speaking of England, presumably), there is no need to offer any extra provision or recognition for religious courts. They are of no interest to the law. If they don’t accord with English law, they are unacceptable and should be repudiated, or even prosecuted.
All this has nothing particularly to do with it being Islamic law at issue. The same would apply to any other religious law: Hindu, Mormon or wiccan. However, there is a lot to be said against sharia and the desire of a reported 40% of British Muslims to live under it. That explains, in part, the present outrage. Sharia is rightly feared here: it is disputed, sometimes primitive, grievously in need of reform and wholly unacceptable in Britain.
So what possessed this troublesome priest to stir up this predictable fury with his divisive and unnecessary suggestions? Why did he choose to speak not just in a quiet academic meeting but also in the public glare of The World at One? And cui bono? It has most certainly not been good for ordinary British Muslims, as they well understand. It has, however, given comfort to Muslim extremists, who will see this as the thin end of their Islamist wedge.
Williams’s behaviour looks like vainglorious attention-seeking, but it is also something much worse. To seek to undermine our legal system and the values on which it rests, in a spirit of unnecessary appeasement to an alien set of values, is a kind of treason. It is a betrayal of all those who struggled and died here, over the centuries, for freedom and equality under the rule of law and of their courage in the face of injustice and unreason. Theirs is the good that we should hold fast and so of all people should the Archbishop of Canterbury. Otherwise, what is he for?