Thursday, 6 March 2008

Front Page Magazine: A Tale of Two Archbishops

"Democracy … is a beautiful and fragile flower and we should support it, value it and protect it. It allows for dissent, for freedom of expression and for rights for all. We should not give in to claims that Islamic countries are morally, spiritually and culturally superior to other civilisations and great cultures … Muslim leaders often tell Christians and Jews that 'there is no compulsion in religion'. This sadly is only half true. If non-Muslims are not compelled to become Muslim, Muslims are not free to choose another faith. There is, we find, some compulsion, after all."
– George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, March 31, 2004.

"It seems unavoidable and indeed as a matter of fact certain provisions of Sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law … I think we need to look at this with a clear eye and not imagine either that we know exactly what we mean by Sharia and just associate it with what we read about Saudi Arabia, or whatever … I don't think we should instantly spring to the conclusion that the whole of that world of jurisprudence and practice is somehow monstrously incompatible with human rights … 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."
– Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury, February 7, 2008.

In these excerpted statements from the heads, past and present, of the Church of England, we see encapsulated two approaches to democracy and the challenges posed to it so divergent that they look as though they emerged from different planets. Put plainly, Carey sees democracy as tender and in need of consolidation; Williams sees it as something rigid and in need of modification.

Williams might deny this formulation. After all, in his call for introducing sharia, he also stressed that he envisages a voluntary jurisdiction for Muslims freely wishing to avail themselves of it, not a coercive one without right of appeal. Yet British journalist Melanie Philips rightly points out that "his proposal would … mean that Britain would simply abandon its female Muslim citizens whose parlous position in respect of forced marriages, honour killings and all the other horrors that follow from their second-class religious status would be institutionalised by giving sharia law official recognition."

That this would prove to be the case is evident from Williams' assertion that sharia is a body of law that he cannot be reliably delineated. As it happens, however, its general provisions on family law are not in doubt. In short, whatever Williams might wish to envisage, a competing jurisdiction would indeed emerge. In these circumstances, equality under the law would become a thing of the past.

I belabor this point, not to demonstrate that Williams' inchoate ideas about democracy accommodating incompatible Islamic mores are eccentric but, on the contrary, to highlight how routine and reflective of British currents they have become.

Consider: in September 2005, the fast-food chain Burger King withdrew its ice-cream cones after the design on the lid of the dessert offended a Muslim in England's High Wycombe. The same month, London's Tate Gallery removed sculptor John Latham's work "God is Great," which included a Koran torn in half. If one doubts these to be exceptional cases in corporate and artistic self-regulation, try to imagine commerce and the arts being comparably deferential to Christian or Jewish sensitivities: no amount of (peaceful) protest ever saw the cancellation of any exhibition of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, which featured a crucifix submerged in urine. Read more

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