A World to Win’s editors are not for any religion or the supremacy of one “belief system” over another. But we can see how those who want to find a peg on which to hang all their prejudices have chosen the Archbishop of Canterbury’s thoughts about the rights of minorities. Rowan Williams has become a punch bag for reactionaries and fake liberals of all kinds following his considered remarks about sharia law and minority communities.
Few people challenge the alienating power of the state which, as a result, assumes some quasi-religious divine right to rule. So it’s a paradox that the most senior figure in the established church has done so. Williams rightly attacked the notion – which has been advanced by New Labour with its “citizenship” propaganda for example - “that to be a citizen is essentially and simply to be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state”. His insistence that there is a “distinction between the rights of citizens overall and the duties of individuals under their religion” and that peoples right to practice what their consciences dictate is equally important.
No wonder that the Brown government immediately joined the lynch mob after the tabloid media spiced up Williams’ address to lawyers last week, declaring that there could only be “British law that reflected British values” and that the archbishop was mistaken. The fact that multiculturalism in Britain has not been entirely successful doesn’t mean that the idea that different peoples can live in harmony should be abandoned. Nor should it mean that all minorities – religious or secular - should be compelled to integrate or face social exclusion. This has been the thrust of Williams’ arguments and the reaction it aroused shows all too clear the intolerance that New Labour and people like Trevor Phillips has helped foster with their attacks on multiculturalism.
Johann Hari and Yasmin Alibhai Brown, both Independent columnists, have shown the true colours behind their supposed free-thinking, liberal stances. They both suggest that Williams has endorsed the abuse of women that occurs in countries under the justification that it is sharia law, which is something that he has not done. Hari, like the Bishop of Rochester, attacked the notion that different peoples, religions and cultures could live together in the UK without being intolerant of each other’s beliefs. Strutting about as a liberal, Hari – who infamously backed the invasion of Iraq – somehow denies that there are minorities like Muslims who have been singled out for punishment and ostracised, taking the place of persecuted Jews, Catholics, Afro-Caribbeans and other ethnic and religious minorities.
Williams did not for one moment suggest that sharia or any other religious-based law should overrule British law. He merely tried to advocate greater understanding of history and customs of another cultures and faiths and to raise whether communities could have some forms of self-regulation in the sphere of civil law. All of the archbishop’s detractors chose to ignore his main message – which is an attack on one-dimensional dogmas of all kinds. In particular, he warned against allowing governments “a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity”.
A strong, confident state that enjoys the general support of the people would, of course, not over-react the way it has over the Williams’ speech. But the institutions of the state do not enjoy such a privileged position. The Church of England, which is an integral part of the British establishment, is itself in some crisis. Reactionaries within the church who joined in the attack on Williams would prefer oblivion to any sort of radical change. They are part of the growing authoritarianism in Britain that is intended to intimidate those who favour open debate.