The Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowlan Williams, recently proposed the United Kingdom to establish separate courts, based on Sharia Law, for British Muslims. He says it will promote “social cohesion” and will free Muslims from being forced to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty."
The archbishop’s rogue proposal and subsequent rationale should serve as a warning for all Western countries, including the United States, where immigration influx is challenging cultural identity.
In an interview with BBC News, Archbishop Williams nuanced his proposal by saying religious courts could limit themselves to civil judgments about marital and financial disputes, for example, and would not necessarily fall into human rights abuses. "Nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well."
His caveat is unconvincing on more than one level.
Apart from my incredulity regarding a Western country successfully moderating Sharia Law (especially given the contradicting interpretations of its various forms even among Muslim scholars), I find particularly disquieting the archbishop’s implied thesis that society cannot create a secular justice system that respects religious plurality and the rights of all of its citizens. It would seem the archbishop gives his blessing to the idea that a Western state is incapable of creating just laws applicable also to Muslims.
Archbishop Williams explained his view in this way: "[In the United Kingdom] there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts — I think that's a bit of a danger."
What? The very purpose of civil law is to order society for everyone. This order always implies freedom of religious practice. When civil law and religion are both based on truth, they are not in conflict. Good law makes possible the practice of good religion. If they clash, one is disordered, and should be amended.
Archbishop Williams is correct in alerting us to the danger of civil law that infringes on religious liberty, including a church’s right to regulate its internal affairs. But in the absence of such liberty, the solution is to rectify the civil system, not to set up separate religious courts.
Perhaps we can best understand the archbishop’s preference for parallel courts if we accept a Muslim worldview that Islam should control every aspect of society, including the courts and the halls of government. The archbishop’s implicit support for this Islamic tradition is consequence, I would suggest, of a false understanding of cultural inclusiveness. We should never accept traditions, even religious traditions, as good simply because they are different from ours, or because they have long been attributed to God’s will by some people.
Even further, if a cultural tradition is in conflict with the dictates of reason — like this example of suppressing a state’s right to certain independence from religious authority — it can’t be in accordance with God’s will and we do a disservice to its adherents by pretending it may be.
The object of true faith is one and the same as the creator of human reason.
When we deny this, or forget this, we open the door to fundamentalism and are left with nothing with which to defend against radical, pseudo-religious propositions.
Here is the crux of the issue, as I see it: if a Muslim in the United Kingdom is being forced to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty," as the archbishop has suggested, it is fair to conclude either a sector of Muslim culture in the United Kingdom or the British state itself is intrinsically flawed and should be changed.
Moderate Muslim scholars should be the first and loudest voices to reject the Anglican archbishop’s proposal as bad for Islam, bad for the United Kingdom and as a terrible precedent for the prospects of cultural integration worldwide.
God bless, Father Jonathan
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