Archbishop, Dr. Rowan Williams – Vocabulary too large?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has recently been at the centre of a debate regarding the rights of certain peoples to be governed by “a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters” (2008: Para 20). More specifically, the current debate revolves around the rights of some Muslims, in certain carefully specified matters, to be governed by Sharia law in Britain.

In an article entitled “Accommodating Islamic Law?” by Theodore Dalrymple, the Archbishop receives a bit of a hammering for his apparent suggestion that such a scheme could be unavoidable.

My intention here is aimed primarily at providing some material for a counter-argument to the journalistic effort of Mr. Theodore Dalrymple. The fact that the journalist in question has failed to convince me should not be read as support for the views of the Archbishop. Instead, I wish merely to demonstrate that the Archbishop of Canterbury is entitled to a much more serious and respectful debate than that which Mr. Dalrymple has offered.

According to one interpretation of the moral Universalist view, moral conduct and justice are not culturally specific. Instead, there are universal rules that apply to human conduct and behavior. Some relativists might argue that since we have no definite, unbiased, formulation of a universal code of behavior, we should instead allow each culture’s traditions of law to carry a certain amount of weight. This seems to be what Dr. Rowan Williams is considering. I won’t go so far as to say that he is advocating this position. He is not arguing that legal universalism is ultimately, and of itself, the right scheme to choose. Rather, he is referencing Ayelet Shachar’s Multicultural Jurisdictions: Cultural Differences and Women’s Rights in recognition of a view that peoples with varying sets of ideals can be transformed into a united group only by assimilating each others values over a period of time. This “transformative accommodation” approach to legal universalism seems more sustainable than one which simply states that the other must conform to established law, or else.

According to Shachar (2001), who has been quoted by the Archbishop in his controversial lecture, under such a transformative scheme “power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents” (2001:122).

Let’s think about this for a moment. Imagine two culturally specific societies living alongside one another. I repeat; these are imaginary societies. One society, for arguments sake, is a meritocracy. The other defines your role and status in society based on your birthday and gender. These two societies will compete against one another for loyal citizens. If you are drawing the same images in your mind that I am, you might be starting to wonder whether this is a good idea after all! It might be a bit of an example of over confidence to suggest that everyone will eventually come to the good side. It would also be naïve to think that the middle ground will be found without a certain level of disturbance during the process. Nevertheless, you will possibly agree that the Archbishop is worthy of a greater analogy than that of a “product of the coupling of Goldilocks and Neville Chamberlain” (2008).

Elizabeth Pearce (1992), at an Australian Institute of Criminology seminar some 16 years ago, presented a seminar paper taking up the issue of Aboriginal Law in Australia. Speaking from her own Aboriginal perspective, in an argument for the application of Aboriginal law to Aboriginal people, she begins by asserting that

Before Aboriginal people can be involved in the criminal justice system in a meaningful way, both the Federal Government and State Governments must recognise us as an integral part of the Australian community rather than an unwanted appendage (1992: Intro).

By the same token, we might want to consider the possibility that a welcoming attitude toward the intellect of our Islamic neighbours might serve to engage that community in a common criminal justice system. Furthermore, the Australian Aboriginal example demonstrates that the issue of incorporating the laws of other peoples is not restricted to those laws arising from religious sources. It is also important to keep in mind that Britain, arguably, is a secular nation. While the Archbishop speaks on behalf of his churches’ members, he does not speak on behalf of the law makers. Nor does he implement the law.

The above considerations are by no means exhaustive, but their complexity should at least illustrate the absurdity of such claims by Dalrymple that

British intellectual life has long harbored a strain of militantly self-satisfied foolishness, and the present archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a perfect exemplar of the tendency (2008: Intro).

The absurdity is magnified by the fact that Dalrymple is only willing to admit that

Williams suggested—or, given the opacity of the language that he habitually employs, apparently suggested—that some elements of sharia should enjoy joint jurisdiction with British law (2008: Para 2).

Here is the real problem that Dalrymple is concerned with. He does not understand or comprehend the Archbishop’s language, and he is holding the Archbishop personally responsible for his own lack of clarity. In fact, the largest part of Dalrymple’s article complains heavily about the Archbishop’s lecture. Dalrymple tells us that upon “reading or hearing this, one wants to pull one’s hair out” (2008: Para 5).

Those who have taken the time to understand the concepts within the material of the lecture would find such comments rather amusing, I suspect. One ought to be able to understand what they are hearing or reading before they dismiss it in a passionate disregard not only for the Archbishop, but also for the “decadent” society that has placed the current Archbishop in his position of authority.

I am reminded of the Scrabble player who cries “cheat!” when the opponent plays an unfamiliar word.

Cross-posted by Brad


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