A recipe for division

15 February 2008

Obscure Monty Python sketches apart, “maverick” and “archbishop” are two words you rarely see together in a sentence, but this is a label that seems to fit Dr Rowan Williams, the former druid turned Anglican supremo, perfectly.He is an intelligent and humble man and he has often spoken with great common sense on matters of toleration and integration.

However, his comments on Sharia law were nevertheless stupid and, if listened to, potentially extremely damaging.

The problem has nothing to do with the actual content of Sharia law, barbaric though elements of it may be, but rather with the notion of giving local community leaders (and religious leaders at that) jurisdiction over the state’s secular legal representatives.

I would have raised a similar objection had Williams suggested the same should be done for either Jewish law or Christian canon law, as the proposal that any church should be able to have a say in legal matters is damaging to society.

Secular law, which has existed in this country for around 300 years, is not tainted by the subjective moral rulings of ecclesiastical leaders and so is able to ensure objective and equitable treatment of all, something which religious law, riddled with abstract quasi-Augustinian notions of virtue and sin, can never hope to do.

Creating an alternative system of law could create a conflict in jurisprudence that would cause great cultural fissures to open within society.

Since Hobbes, it has been acknowledged by political scientists that a uniform system of law before which all citizens are equal is the cornerstone of civilised society, the one constant that binds together a people and makes them a nation.

Once a rival legal system is instituted, not only will there be all manner of practical problems regarding who has jurisdiction over what issues and where the authority of the Imam ends and the magistrate begins, but this conflict will further separate Muslim citizens from secular law and thus increase their alienation.

Dr Williams’ proposal aims to help create social cohesion and deal with the fact that many Muslims feel that they cannot relate to British law in its current state, but in fact it will exacerbate existing problems. Allowing Muslim communities to adopt legal autonomy in this way will only cause further entrenchment of these communities and hinder attempts to integrate them.

The two factors that should act as a foundation for a cohesive multi-faith society are a uniform secular legal system, that can guarantee equality of treatment, and a common notion of citizenship which will foster feelings of toleration between different cultural groups and help create a society in which faith, and ethnicity no longer matter,Dr Williams suggestion would be detrimental to the goal of creating cohesion.

His comments, though well meant, do not point towards a policy that would be progressive, effective or beneficial.

Robert Wilkinson is a 2nd year SPS student and blogs at