Unlike their predecessor Henry II, the political elite at Westminster were no doubt positively delighted by the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury last week. No sooner than did the words ‘sharia law’ escape Rowan Williams’s lips, than the knights of the 24-hour media, like their 12th century counterparts, charge towards the meddlesome priest with their swords drawn. With the news cycle moving away from the turmoil in the financial markets and the Oscar Wilde-inspired and tax payer-funded sartorial habits of an MP’s son, Labour and Conservative parties alike must have heaved a sigh of relief. As pundits and journalists from across the whole political spectrum gathered to lynch the man in the mitre (or as the Sun helpfully put it, to ‘bash the bishop’), the politicians could finally catch their breaths before the next round of – inevitably – bad news.
Obviously, in strict accordance with the Law of the Media Circus, the amount of vitriol and hysteria which is generated by said circus is inversely proportionate to the actual cause for alarm or concern. Since I am not a lawyer or an expert on Islamic jurisprudence, I cannot offer any particularly helpful insight into overall merit of Dr. Williams’s proposals. I am, however, literate and was able to actually read the speech which ignited this controversy.
Unfortunately, this presumption of literacy was not borne out in the case of most of the self-proclaimed defenders of the rule of law and Western civilisation. In recent days, the Archbishop has extended an offer of pax, apologising for any ‘unclarity’ in his speech which might have led some to misunderstand his meaning. But really, unless by ‘misunderstand’ he meant ‘wilfully ignore large chunks of speech which directly and thoughtfully addressed the concerns rabidly paraded in the press’, I am not sure why even this muted apology was justified.
Perhaps journalists these days are too busy defending Enlightenment values or pondering Britney’s downward spiral to read primary sources when these exceed their 150-word attention span limit. I am genuinely puzzled by the charge that Williams was naively unaware of the disadvantaged status of women, the problem of ‘forced marriage’, and the extreme incompatibility of some provisions of sharia with human rights, when these concerns were all dealt with at length and with evident application and research.
So for the Johann Haris, Yasmin Alibhai-Browns and the rest of the muscular liberals and/or secularist paranoiacs, the solution to their nightmares of the coming oppressive theocracy is simply to learn to read. I recommend particularly the sentence (only 44 words!) where Williams insists that ‘If any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no “supplementary” jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.’
The remedy for some of the less savoury platoons in the anti-Williams army will unfortunately have to be more radical. The drumbeat they march to is leading the faithful in a grand crusade to save Western Civilisation from what they see as the confessional and demographic threat of Islam. Of course, by no means all of Williams’s critics fall into this category; indeed, thankfully few do. But a distressingly vocal band of the usual suspects has used the controversy surrounding the Archbishop as a screen to advance their, much more sinister, agenda.
Over at the Daily Telegraph for example, Damian Thompson graciously admits that Williams rejects unequivocally such abominations as the stoning of adulterous women. But Thompson points out that Williams’s fault was to find some actually accommodating things to say about sharia (shock! horror!), rather than to take Thompson’s line of comparing Islamic law to Nazism (carefully inserted by referring to the Archbishop’s speech as ‘Vichyite waffle’).
Make no mistake about this: Thompson’s hatred of sharia does not stem from any special love for human rights. His astoundingly reactionary blog features frequent calls for aggressive Catholic proselytising, an end to stem-cell research and the rolling back of equal rights for women and homosexuals. So his venomous opposition to any accommodation of the Muslim community beyond reluctant toleration really comes down, not to a robust defence of liberal democracy, but to Islamophobia.
Don’t take my word for it when you can read Thompson’s own mewling for yourself. Apparently when he yearns for the conversion of Jews to Catholicism, he is merely recognising the ‘universal salvific nature’ of his faith, whereas when a small mosque in East Oxford wants to broadcast the call to prayer once a week, this will ‘strengthen the sense of territorial domination that is central to modern Islamic identity’. All attempts to reach reasonable accommodation with Muslims is labelled ‘dhimmitude’, a term which refers in Islamic jurisprudence to the protected but subordinate status of non-Muslims in an Islamic state, and in Thompson’s writing to the deplorable capitulationism of woolly-minded multi-cultis to the coming Islamic domination.
It is this same irrational fear – the definition, after all, of ‘phobia’ – which has inspired the recent crusade, headed by Oxford historian of science, Dr. Allan Chapman, to prevent the East Oxford mosque from broadcasting the adhan. The bow tie and deerstalker hat-wearing Chapman, who seems to have picked up both his clothes and his views from the 1890s, thinks the mosque’s request represents not an appeal to the freedom of religious expression, but the ‘right to torment the community’, afflicting him with the ‘horrible sound’ of the call to prayer and offending his no doubt legendary ‘sense of neighbourliness’.
Like Thompson and his fellow-traveller Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, Chapman thinks broadcasting a short prayer in classical Arabic constitutes an attempt to ‘dominate’ and ‘Islamify’ the community. Chapman has been joined by the rector of St Aldate’s church, Revd Charlie Cleverly – clearly one of God’s mysterious ways is to give people ironic surnames – who claims the professions of faith contained in the adhan make it an attempt to impose that faith on the community. I hate to break it to Revd Cleverly, but (presumably) unlike him, most Oxford residents are not fluent in classical Arabic. And when it comes to imposing one’s faith on others, frankly St Aldate’s church is hardly the most innocent of the charge.
So as the latest wave of bishop-bashing breaks, spare a thought for Rowan Williams and his increasingly embattled attempt to forge mature and thoughtful debate on a difficult subject. But spare a thought also for the hoary old Islamophobes who have come out of hiding. They seem to be having trouble finding their way to the 21st century. Please, when you see them, give them a hand.
Caleb Yong is a finalist in Modern History and Politics at Christ Church. The views expressed here are entirely his own.