Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?
Forgive the stark clarity of my headline, but sometimes when writing about the Archbishop of Canterbury, clarity is what is needed. I ask this of readers here, because this is the question put to me time after time this afternoon by incredulous commentators of every variety, stunned into blunt expression by the Archbishop of Canterbury's uncharacteristically clear comments on Sharia in Britain.The Archbishop believes adopting aspects of sharia law into British law would help maintain social cohesion. But who exactly is asking for this? No Muslim organisation in Britain has requested it, I could not find any who even wanted it. Instead, Muslims I spoke to this afternoon seem fearful of the effects the Archbishop's latest remarks will have on those already prejudiced against their community. As well they might be. His speech was delivered this evening at the Royal Courts of Justice in Strand, London. (Update: do read this interesting analaysis from Propaganda Box.)
The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, responded: 'English law is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and, in particular, our notions of human freedoms derive from that tradition. In my view, it would be simply impossible to introduce a tradition, like sharia into this corpus without fundamentally affecting its integrity.' Read his full comments here. Also see here for a legal opinion from barrister Dr James Behrens.
Sheikh Michael Mumisa, an Islamic scholar at Cambridge University and who is affiliated to Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations at the Woolf Institute, said: 'I do understand that by sharia law here he means only the personal status laws of Islam such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and not its penal code.” Mumisa, author of the book Islamic Law: Theory and Interpretation, continued: 'I disagree and believe that the introduction of such laws within the UK will undermine the rights of Muslim women. Moreover, some senior Muslim clerics in the UK want more than just the personal status laws and would prefer that the penal laws were introduced as well.'
A few days ago, the Archbishop argued also for the abolition of the blasphemy law - as long as it was replaced by something even more severe. People should be punished for daring to voice thoughts that were hurtful to others, he said, even when that hurt was unintentional. Now it seems he wants women, children, all of us in fact, to have to kow-tow to some of the strictest, harshest and most draconian laws dreamed up by any religious system, ever, anywhere in the world.
There might not be no-go areas for non-Muslims in Britain, as he recently argued against the Bishop of Rochester. But this is certainly the way to go about creating them.
Is the Archbishop of Canterbury unaware of the history of the Church he has been chosen to lead? Coming from Wales is no excuse, as until the early years of the last century, Wales was part of the Church of England as well. The Church of England was born out of an express desire to rid Britain of a foreign, ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Article 37 of the 39 says: 'The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.' Queen Elizabeth I early in her reign decreed that the Crown had restored to it 'the ancient jurisdiction over the state ecclesiastical and spiritual, abolishing all foreign power repugnant to the same'.
And now Queen Elizabeth II's very own Archbishop - and let's not forget she is his Church's Supreme Governor - wants to introduce a new 'jurisdiction into this realm of England.' And an Islamic one at that!
It is one thing for judges to take Sharia into account, as has happened in Germany. It is quite another to follow the line the Archbishop is suggesting. It led to near disaster in Ontario, Canada two years ago and would created untold and unnecessary distress here were it to be implemented here.
The Archbishop has staked everything on trying to maintain unity in his own Anglican Communion. At the same time, he is advocating a policy that could only fragment the society around him.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a woman who works in an advocacy role for Muslim women in an area that, quite independently of the Bishop of Rochester, she described as a 'no-go area' for non-Muslims. Her clients were women in the process of being sectioned into mental health units in the NHS. This woman, who for obvious reasons begged not to be identified, told me: 'The men get tired of their wives. Or bored. Or maybe the wife objects to her daughter being forced into a marriage she doesn't want. Or maybe she starts wearing western clothes.There can be many reasons. The women are sent for asssessment to a hospital. The GP referring them is Muslim. The psychiatrist assessing them is Muslim and male. I have sat in these assessments where the psychiatrist will not look the woman patient in the eye because she is a woman. Can you imagine! A psychiatrist refusing to look his patient in the eye? The woman speaks little or no English. She is sectioned. She is divorced. There are lots of these women in there, locked up in these hospitals. Why don't you people write about this?'
My interlocuter went very red and almost started to cry. Instead, she began shouting at me. I was a member of the press. 'You must write about this,' she begged.
'I can't,' I said. 'Not unless you become a whistle-blower. Or give me some evidence. Or something.'
She shook her head. 'I can't be identified,' she said. 'I would be killed. And so would the women.'
So there you have it. After weeks of wondering what to do, inspired by the Archbishop, I've taken her word that she is telling the truth, respected her anonymity, and written it anyway.And this, I imagine, is what the Archbishop wants for the whole of England. As they used to say in my father's country parish: 'Heaven preserve us!' I wonder what they're saying there today. Expressions somewhat shorter and sweeter, I fear.