February 14, 2008 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Islam, Britain

With all the elegance of a bull in a china shop, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, last week made a foray into the difficult subject of how Muslims fit into Western societies. The ensuing crashing and banging is still going on in Britain and can be heard across the pond.

We might possibly thank the venerable gentleman for bringing the subject out into the open. How Muslims fit into Western societies is certainly one subject that deserves intensive reflection and debate, as Muslim populations continue to grow - particularly in Europe, but also in the United States, Canada and Russia.

However, the conclusions the archbishop drew in an interview on the BBC were startling - to wit that Britain had to "face up to the fact" that some citizens do not relate to the UK legal system and that the introduction of Shariah law seems "unavoidable." Shariah law is the legal system that governs social and cultural aspects of Muslim lives. It is often controversial because of the severity of its punishments and its lack of rights for women. Introducing it, the archbishop said, could help social cohesion in Britain because Muslims could choose, for instance, to have marital disputes of financial matters dealt with in a Shariah court.

Interestingly enough, social cohesion is exactly what the Rev. Williams' remarks have produced as the British started contemplating the demise of their legal system. Sometimes, appreciation for your own institutions and values does not come until you find them under threat. In this case, the threat is not Muslims living in British society as much as it is those who advocate their presence as a reason to abandon the cultural, legal and political structures that have made Britain what it is over the centuries.

The same can be said for other Western societies under strain from growing Muslim populations. These societies may not be perfect. In fact, sometimes they veer toward decadence, excessive tolerance verging on spinelessness and a mass culture that caters to the absolutely lowest denominator. Yet they have also produced the bedrock universal liberal (in the original sense of the word) principles of democracy: equality before the law, respect for human dignity, political rights and religious liberty.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the archbishop is said to have been taken aback by the fierceness of the response to his cogitations. From the back benches of the Tory Party to the spokesmen for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, from gay activists to staunch conservatives to Muslim women advocates, the outcry has been vociferous and loud. Labor Culture Secretary Andy Burnham said that introducing Shariah would create "social chaos." Shaista Gohir, director of Muslim Voice UK and an advisor to the British government, said, "The majority of Muslims do not want it," citing the statistic that 60 percent of Muslims are actually against the idea. "He is not fit to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, he doesn't know what his business is," charged Gerard Batten, member of the European Parliament from the UK Independence Party.

It may seem peculiar for the Church of England to wade into the territory of Muslim integration. Yet, because practicing Christians are an ever declining share of the population, British church leaders seem to be constantly looking for social causes. Christianity as the foundation of British society for many - including obviously the archbishop - has become less and less obvious.

Hence, the archbishop's particular issue is interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Those who want to know more about his opinion could try to read his disquisition from Feb. 7 "Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England," which started the whole thing. It is one of the most convoluted documents you will ever encounter and a masterpiece of deconstructionism.

Here is a taste of the archbishop's thinking as articulated in "Islam in English Law": "The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human condition or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries or practice and understanding, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity."

This is the "rule of law"? The authors of the Magna Carta must be spinning in their graves.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times