One might have guessed that the Archbishop of Canterbury would find a verbally tortured way of explaining himself. “I must of course take responsibility for any unclarity,” he told the Synod this afternoon. What a curious word to use. In this case, I suppose, “unclarity” begins at home.
It has been said by one or two more astute commentators since the row over sharia began last Thursday that Dr Williams’s whispering diffidence conceals an intellectual arrogance that lies at the heart of the problem. He admitted that the matter had been handled “clumsily” and made an allusion to unintended hurt from the Psalms. But, on the whole, I thought this was a pretty unrepentant performance.
The Archbishop essentially repeated what he had already said, while leaving out the incendiary stuff. He wasn’t, he said, proposing “parallel jurisdiction” – although he did not withdraw his support for “plural jurisdiction”. There could be, he said, no “blank cheques” where the recognition of sharia law was concerned – what a relief! – “in particular as regards some of the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women. The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity.”
Well, yes. But if a devolved jurisdiction, recognised by superior courts, does not share such enthusiasm for the rights of women, who is to say those rights will be imposed? What comfort would it give a Bengali woman in East London to know that, in principle, the Law Lords might one day strike down a deeply sexist ruling against her passed by the local official sharia tribunal? Indeed, might not the problem be that justice began and ended for many people at sharia level?
Again, one is struck by the dispassionate intellectual’s incapacity to grasp the stakes, or the strength of emotion he has stirred up. The Archbishop said he understood that many were concerned by the implacable Islamic doctrine of “apostasy” – that is, the crime of not being a Muslim – and mused that “honest discussion of this was imperative”. What most people will be asking is why Dr Williams wants to go to the negotiating table with people who espouse such doctrines at all.
What the Archbishop did not address at all was what the impact of juridical devolution – official recognition of sharia courts – might have upon our communities and upon social cohesion. Nor did he say why such a step might be necessary in the first place except to refer vaguely to the importance of conscience in the formation of law, or explain further why he assented on Thursday to the proposition that the incorporation of some sharia rules was “unavoidable”.
This was peevish stuff, dressed up as prayerful thoughtfulness. Dr Williams has a lot more explaining to do.