Melanie Phillips

13 February 2008

Why the Archbishop shouldn't get away with it

Published in: Daily Mail

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So that's all right then.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks about sharia law were completely and totally misunderstood. He has apologised for his ‘unclarity’ and expressing himself clumsily, but definitely not for what he said. End of story.

This, four days after Dr Williams' comments on the need to accommodate sharia law in Britain ignited public outrage.

His remarks united in condemnation politicians from all parties along with people of all religions and none. Phone lines to radio and TV programmes were jammed with furious calls, website were deluged and inside the church there were calls for him to resign.

Yet the day after Dr Williams faced the Synod to fight for his professional life, liberal voices were loud in support of the ‘misunderstood’ prelate. He was apparently the victim of both ‘the tabloids’ and ‘traditionalists’ in his own church who had been gunning for him since he took office.

To the BBC he was merely ‘guilty of innocence’; his problem was that his enormous brain was simply incapable of ‘neatly packaged soundbites’; and it gushed that he was ‘a great’ Archbishop of Canterbury. For its part, the Synod had given him a standing ovation. The arch-muddler had turned into a martyr. So how had Dr Williams pulled off this miracle?

I'm sorry but this really looks like smoke and mirrors. There are no fewer than seven cogent reasons why Dr Williams's position is more untenable today than it was at the start of the week.

ONE: His mea culpa that his ‘unclarity’ had led people to misunderstand what he said. Put to one side the implied insult behind the self-deprecation, that the public were too stupid to understand him.

His excuse ignored the key fact that the public had exploded in anger five hours before his lecture, when he said on BBC Radio's The World At One that ‘one law for everybody’ was ‘a bit of a danger’, that Islamic sharia law was not ‘an alien and rival system’ and that the adoption of sharia was ‘unavoidable’. It was this, a shocking and unequivocal renunciation of the core principle of equality before the law, that provoked the fury. So his excuse that people had jumped to the wrong conclusions from his lecture demonstrably didn't hold water.

TWO: He gave that interview in the first place as part of a strategy to manipulate public opinion. Well before his lecture was even written, Lambeth Palace's press advisers were pondering how to secure the most favourable media reaction from a densely argued address which was bound to be intensely controversial.

The wheeze they hit upon was to offer an exclusive interview with Dr Williams to The World At One, so that they could carefully 'manage' the reaction to his lecture.

Unfortunately, this cynical plan spectacularly boomeranged when Dr Williams said on air a number of things which were both incendiary and crystal clear. The result was that within minutes of the interview, the radio programme's phones were ringing with calls from furious listeners.

THREE: Having seen his attempt to control public reaction go so badly wrong, Dr Williams tried to pretend that he had not said what he did in fact say. In particular, he told the Synod that he had not been talking about ‘parallel jurisdictions’ of sharia and English law.

But in his lecture he had talked in terms of ‘supplementary jurisdictions’, and suggested an end to Britain's ‘legal monopoly’ so that British Muslims could choose to be dealt with under either sharia or English law.

That inescapably implies equal status — or parallel jurisdictions. But on this point Dr Williams chose be less than transparent — and added to the confusion.

He told the Synod that he merely wanted to offer additional choices for ‘resolving disputes and regulating transactions’. This implied that all he wanted to do was extend the existing system, already used by both British Muslims and Jews, of informal religious tribunals whose decisions have no force of law.

A ‘jurisdiction’, however, is a very different matter. It is a means of enforcing a body of law. And indeed, in his lecture Dr Williams actually spoke of ‘a delegation of certain functions’ of English law to sharia courts.

So his disavowal was disingenuous to the point of being downright misleading.

True, he said nothing should prevent Muslim women from having recourse to the remedies of English human rights law. But in his interview he also spoke about ‘an alternative to the divorce courts’.

How on earth would human rights law help protect a British Muslim woman who is exposed to manifold injustice, violence and even ‘honour killings’ under the sharia family law Dr Williams wishes to entrench?

FOUR: The Archbishop's inexcusable naivety about sharia law. He made clear he was talking about a ‘soft’ kind of sharia. But while this is espoused by reformist Muslims, there would be nothing to stop its more draconian provisions being enacted here.

Indeed, Islam has never allowed itself to be a pick and mix religion, nor to be subservient to any other legal system. Entrenching it within our system would inevitably introduce principles that are inimical to British justice.

FIVE: Dr Williams's prescriptions would spell the end of British identity. Until now, all minorities have set up their own communities of faith and culture under the law of the land, which binds us all as equally loyal citizens of this country.

But Dr Williams suggested that English and sharia law should engage in a grotesque ‘competition for loyalty’ among British Muslims, whom he described as facing the ‘stark alternatives’ of allegiance to their culture or the state.

It is simply unacceptable for the head of this country's established church to say, in effect, that if Muslims refuse to adhere to British values then Britain will have to become a bit Muslim.

SIX: Dr Williams's remarks will already have emboldened British Islamist radicals and recruited yet more to their cause. Some will disagree but I believe they will see in his willingness to accommodate sharia law evidence that British society is now terminally weakened and is theirs for the taking.

SEVEN: His remarks will have a devastating effect on Christians in the Third World. Don't forget Dr Williams is the head of a church whose members, in countries such as Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere, are being persecuted, harassed, attacked, forcibly converted and murdered in large numbers at the hands of the enforcers of sharia law.

By proposing to entrench sharia law in Britain, he has both betrayed his besieged flock worldwide and weakened Britain against the danger that it faces from the same Islamist enemy that threatens Christians around the world.

That, disgracefully, is what the Synod rose to its feet to applaud when it gave Dr Williams its standing ovation.

No, there was no public misunderstanding over the Archbishop's remarks. People understood precisely what he was saying. But now he has compounded that gross misjudgment by spinning it as cynically as any venal politician.

For shame.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
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