A Muslim Response

The Archbishop and the Shari’a

Many heaped opprobrium on him, his Synod gave him a standing ovation, but British Muslims have so far had little to say about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent foray into the minefield of community cohesion.

Yet he raised very important questions concerning the fundamental nature of our legal framework and its capacity to accommodate ‘competing’ perspectives such as might be presented by the Shari’a, amongst others.

We certainly appreciate the substance of his contributions and the sincerity of his intentions for the greater welfare of British society. With the sole exception of his choice of the term ‘primitivist’ to describe the tendency amongst some Muslim groupings to adhere to the earliest legal modalities (we would suggest ‘primalist’ as being less potentially provocative), we also acknowledge the otherwise excellent example he has set in the respectful tenor of his remarks and the care and circumspection with which he has approached the complexities of Islamic legal tradition and Muslim sensibilities.

From the point of view of the greater welfare of our society, it is clear to us that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interventions could not have been better timed. The hysterical reactions he has met with in the media and amongst politicians suggests that he has lanced a rather dangerous boil that has been threatening sooner or later to poison the body politic. The results of such operations are never very pretty to see, but we should all be grateful for the skill and precision with which the Archbishop has wielded his scalpel.

Firstly, we are thankful because the explosive reaction to Dr Williams’ interview and lecture has provided some relief from pressures which in recent years have been building up around the deep confusion, fear and uncertainty that surround specific foundational moral, social and political issues, and secondly, because of the opportunity it has given us all, in its aftermath, to sort out a number of matters. As has been said: “confusion is the beginning of knowledge,” for if opinion can be defined as a false sense of certainty arrived at without knowledge, then the admission of ignorance and confusion may lead to clarity. 

The example Dr Williams gave of the sharia, as he made clear, is simply illustrative of a more general issue: the relationship between differing cultures and patterns of jurisprudence, with the Enlightenment and secular law at one end of the spectrum, and God and revealed law at the other end. What is the position of British law on this spectrum?

Common Law is not a product of the Enlightenment but derives from mediaeval law, most notably in England the Magna Carta. It has always been, as has British culture, an accommodation between various interest groups. That accommodation was hard won throughout British history, a process which has not always been plain sailing, nor all its stages admirable and just. Nevertheless we can say, with a great deal of simplification, that the essence of British culture within the European setting has been to oppose totalitarianism. This is arguably what Henry VIII did in severing links with the papacy, and it is clearly what we did in fighting Napoleon, who was responsible for setting in place a law based on the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers. 

The built-in resistance of the Common Law to the dangers inherent in the monolithic constitutional form of state and law that is the legacy of the French Revolution (itself an offshoot of Enlightenment philosophy) has proved its resilience time and again. Thus we have opposed Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, all of whom were arguably seeking to fulfil the vision of a unitary state and law quite contrary to the pragmatic balance of interests and powers that is the basis of British law and society. Dr Williams, therefore, far from attempting to overthrow British law, seems to be the latest and clearest spokesman for our long held legal and cultural tradition.

The reaction of people who claim to speak for British culture and who would almost certainly regard themselves as children of the Enlightenment was astonishing, for to a man they had not read the text of the talk or had at the most skimmed it uncomprehendingly. Thus more properly they should perhaps be called ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’,1 in John Ralston Saul’s memorable phrase, ‘bastards’ not in the pejorative sense but as those who are not the genuine heirs of the Enlightenment.

What is decidedly peculiar is the way in which what had been the refreshing winds of intellectual enquiry and freedom of thought in the Enlightenment have become in our time an identifiable dogma for the simple-minded who can recite a litany of ‘freedom’, ‘our country’,  ‘our culture’, ‘democracy’ and ‘equality before the law’ without once confronting the existential realities of those terms and the very genuine concerns that people have today at the way in which that freedom, that culture, that democracy and that law are being dismantled piecemeal before our very eyes. Hence, the most worrying aspect of this case: that the children of the Enlightenment have turned it into an idol and its values into a dogma, and have switched off the intellect for whose freedom the Enlightenment’s great ones struggled.

There is little doubt that certain elements in the media, parliament and public life have utilised the tactic, to borrow Naomi Klein’s insight, of ‘the shock doctrine’,2 i.e. for a variety of reasons a large number of different people have been waiting for an appropriate occasion to deliver their unpleasant burden, and, in the words of other commentators, it was a good day to bury a story. 

It was Dr. William’s misfortune to present the occasion for their attack, but he was not really their target. What is astonishing is the depth of the malevolence the occasion has unveiled, and it is this concealed poison that truly endangers the health of our society. Therefore, we are indeed grateful that it is now out in the open, for the pathology of hidden syndromes is much more difficult of access, and thus treatment, than those that present themselves openly.

It would be a great mistake to imagine there is a single cause at work here, for in the words of the great Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, “Nothing comes from a single cause, but from many”,3 and so let us try and analyse the situation to see some of the elements.

The genuine sense of outrage from British people, admittedly provoked and aggravated by the gutter press, must be accepted. There can be no doubt that there is a real feeling that something thought of as British culture is under threat, and this threat is presented to them as coming from hapless Muslim immigrants, often in the third or even fourth generation, and from refugees. 

Of course, it is questionable how in any meaningful sense the Daily Express, for example, has anything to do with British culture. Do they stand for Shakespeare, Donne, Milton and Carlyle or even D. H. Lawrence? In the context we are examining, do they have the faintest interest in the roots and principles of British common law, and, if so, where are they when habeas corpus and most of the liberties granted by Magna Carta are being whittled away? The unfortunate answer must be that they are howling for their immediate abolition. Yet this sense that the British people at large have that their culture and way of life are under threat is palpable and ought to be addressed.

The real threat, as the sub-title of the Naomi Klein book makes clear, is ‘disaster capitalism’ or, just plain ‘capitalism’, which is going through one of its periodic crises: house prices falling, the threat of interest rates and thus mortgage payments rising, a commodity war in Iraq threatening to mushroom into another in Iran, possibly nuclear, the destruction of British manufacturing and thus reduced opportunities for employment in some meaningful productive activity as opposed to 'careers' in so-called ‘service’ sectors like retail, hospitality, call centres, IT, banking or insurance, and then the increasing outsourcing of even these activities to India and other points in the Far East. There is no doubt that all of these matters are transforming our world at a quite remarkable pace, whether one considers that change in a positive or negative light. The pace of this change is largely experienced as intolerable by ordinary people, and as they look restlessly around for the causes of their pain, they have already been conditioned to lash out at the immigrants, and in particular the Muslims.

In a climate in which we are now accustomed to equating these groups with images of forced marriages, honour killings and terrorist acts of nihilism, the truth is that in most instances they are closer to actual ‘British’ values than those who vilify them, for they are people with a respect for the family, an affectionate regard for the young, honour for the elderly, a genuine awe of learning and scholarship, and they are arguably more authentic followers of Jesus, for whom they have great love, than the majority of their critics. It is, however, their misfortune to come from relatively unsophisticated backgrounds and to be inarticulate in ways of defending themselves in their second language, so that they are easy targets for demagogues and the unscrupulous. 

So we stand at a critical juncture in our history between our historical British common law and the constitutionalism of an expanding Europe that is, arguably, edging us toward the brink of a new totalitarianism.  At the same time the entire world suffers under the strain of a global capitalism in crisis and fear of the environmental disaster that it has generated. No wonder people cry out inarticulately in pain. The Archbishop has done well to open this matter up for public debate, and we only hope that we can rise to the occasion and address some of these complex issues with the gravity they deserve.

Abdassamad Clarke

Ihsan Mosque, Norwich

Wednesday 13th February 2008

1 Saul, John Ralston, Voltaire’s Bastards, The Free Press (26 Aug 1992)

2 Klein, Naomi , The Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. Allen Lane (18 Sep 2007)

3 Knut Hamsun, The Growth of the Soil. Chapter 30. Translated by W. W. Worster, available as an e-text from http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/h/h23g/h23g.html

I am grateful to Hajj Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison and Hajj Abdalhaqq Bewley for having asked me to write this article. Hajj Uthman contributed the first page and edited it.