What is it with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury? This is the self-described “Druid” and “hairy leftie” who, when he was Archbishop of Wales, held up the cartoon characters Homer and Marge Simpson as worthy exceptions to the entertainment industry’s usual portrayal of the institution of marriage. (We thought the journalist Charles Moore got it exactly right when he described Rowan Williams as “somehow mentally as well as actually bearded.”) Dr. Williams has publicly described his doubts about the Nativity (really, he said, it is a “legend”) and has refused to comment on the veracity of the Resurrection—all well and good were Rowan Williams an ordinary citizen, but what about Rowan Williams, Primate of All England? Do we really want our clergy to be as theologically challenged as a cleric out of a Graham Greene novel? And why should an archbishop of the Church of England reserve all his doubts for religious matters? When it comes to politics, he seems to entertain no doubts whatsoever. Terrorists like Mohammed Atta, he has argued, have “serious moral goals,” while America, responding as it has to al Qaeda, “loses the power of self-criticism and becomes trapped in a self-referential morality.”
Well, the Primate of All England certainly has something to teach us about losing the power of self-criticism. In our view, any Archbishop of Canterbury in whom that faculty was still intact would be careful to defend his faith—that is, the Christian faith espoused by the Church of England. We hate to be so catechistical about this. But doesn’t it betoken a serious failure of self-criticism when the Archbishop of Canterbury gives a lecture on the BBC and says, inter alia, that the adoption of some aspects of Islamic sharia law in Britain is “unavoidable”? Wouldn’t any Christian clergyman of sound principles think twice—i.e., exercise self-criticism—before saying that? Especially, we might add, when his church has lost 20 percent of its congregation in the last eight years. And what does it tell us about Dr. Williams that he should then proceed to call for a “constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law” and argue that Britons must “face up to the fact” that some of its citizens do not “relate” to the British legal system?
“Constructive accommodation”: you have to admire the verbal legerdemain. How does the constructive variety differ from the other sorts on offer—from abject capitulation, for example? And as for Muslim Brits not “relating” to the law, what can that mean? The rule of law is not a lifestyle choice: it is not something you can opt out of if you happen to have alternative inclinations. “Gee, in my religion, we stone adulteresses to death, so would you mind stepping aside and handing me that pile of rocks?” The proper answer to such gambits was formulated in the nineteenth century by General Sir Charles Napier when dealing with suttee, the Indian custom of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
Napier flourished in an age of cultural confidence. He was unassailed by the paralyzing multicultural thought that, after all, British civilization was just another civilization and that it only stood to reason that the Indians had their way of dealing with things. He knew that suttee was a disgusting, barbaric practice and he was in India to stamp out such barbarisms and bring the Indians into the modern world. Archbishop Williams seeks instead a “constructive accommodation” with practices that, if they proceed, would destroy everything he, as chief prelate of the Church of England, stands for.
So far, anyway, there is nothing at all “unavoidable” about the dissemination of sharia law in Britain. All that would be necessary to countermand it is a little self-assertion on the part of the British people—a little strain of Napier in the stew of Williamsesque blather. Will that self- assertion be forthcoming? The response to Rowan Williams’s latest folly makes it difficult to say. In the immediate aftermath of his comments, there was a cataract of criticism, even in ecclesiastical circles. But when the Archbishop went before the General Synod of the Church of England a few days later, he was greeted by a standing ovation. Meanwhile, we read that the British government is on the verge of approving the issue of sharia-compliant “Islamic bonds” in an effort to raise money from the Middle East to help pay for Gordon Brown’s public-spending program. The bonds, which are approved by Muslim clerics, eschew conventional interest payments because under sharia charging interest is forbidden. The scheme, one English paper reported, “would mark one of the most significant economic advances of sharia law in the non-Muslim world. It will lead to the ownership of Government buildings and other assets currently belonging to British taxpayers being switched wholesale to wealthy Middle-Eastern businessmen and banks.”
We maintain our doubts about “unavoidability.” But we acknowledge the troubling accuracy of a friend’s comment: “It’s all happening very fast, isn’t it?” The London Daily Telegraph recently reported that Britain is experiencing the greatest emigration of its own nationals since before World War I. Who can blame them?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 7, on page 1
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