okay, okay, one little post on Rowan Williams

So, the uproar continues over the recent remarks of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, about sharia and British law. (Note the extraordinary thing I just did: I linked to the remarks themselves, rather than newspaper summaries of them.) Ross has the smartest take on the whole thing I’ve yet seen: while rightly noting that Williams simply did not say what he has been accused of saying, he equally rightly goes on to note what a total hash Williams made of an extremely touchy set of issues: “Perhaps there will come a time when an Archbishop of Canterbury will have the luxury to muse at length on whether it might be appropriate for his nation to consider some sort of ‘plural jurisdiction’ where Muslim communities are concerned. But regardless of his good intentions, it seems to me the height of folly for this head of the Church of England, at this moment in the history of his nation and his faith, to wander in the gardens of intellectual theory while brushing away the actual controversies on the ground.”

And in the past few hours Williams has issued further clarifications, important ones (emphases mine): “The lecture was written as an opening contribution to a series on Islam and English Law mounted by the Temple Church and London University. As such, it posed the question to the legal establishment of whether attempts to accommodate aspects of Islamic law would create an area where the law of the land doesn’t run. This, I said, would certainly be the case if any practice under Islamic law had the effect of removing from any individual the rights they were entitled to enjoy as a citizen of the UK; and I concluded that nothing should be recognised which had that effect. We are not talking about parallel jurisdictions; and I tried to make clear that there could be no ‘blank cheques’ in this regard, 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.

But even here Williams is rhetorically maladroit: when he says (or rather implies) that there should be no “blank cheques” for people who want to use sharia to restrict the freedoms of Muslim women, does that mean that they could ultimately get what they want after dialogue and negotiation? And if not, then what does Williams mean? And when he says that there are “sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women,” does he mean to say that he’s willing to put the “status and liberties of women” on the table for discussion? He’s certainly not saying that those who want to curtail and liberties of women are wrong. This clarification helps, but doesn’t help much.

Meanwhile, the H. M. S. Hitchens now lurches into view and unleashes a series of volleys against the starboard side of the Archbishop. Of course he accuses Williams of saying things he didn’t say (“But now the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has cited the Beth Din as one of his reasons for believing that sharia, or Islamic law, can and should become a part of what he called ‘plural jurisdiction’ in Britain”), but to some degree Williams’s verbal academentia excuses that misconstrual. In any case, Hitch is just getting warmed up: by the end we hear Williams described as “this sheep-faced English cleric” who “throws away the work of centuries of civilization,” and as “a fatuous cleric who, presiding over an increasingly emaciated and schismatic and irrelevant church, nonetheless maintains that any faith is better than none at all.”

This all might be rather more effective if it were slightly more rooted in fact, but it’s fun all the same to see Hitch in full dudgeon. What was it that Balfour said about Churchill? “His guns are powerful, though not very mobile.”