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Allah, Queen, and Country

Sharia gets an unlikely boost in the UK.

11:00 PM, Feb 12, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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LAST WEEK THE ARCHBISHOP of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, generated a tsunami of criticism by welcoming the partial adoption of Islamic Sharia law in the United Kingdom. "If what we want socially," said Rowan Williams, "is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of diverse and overlapping affiliations work for a common good . . . it seems unavoidable." The only truly unavoidable thing was that an apology from the archbishop would be forthcoming. Whether the continued decline in the influence of Christianity in Britain is also unavoidable remains an open question.

The mea culpa arrived earlier this week, somewhat garbled, in a speech before the church's General Synod. Williams offered to "take responsibility" for his remarks, but also insisted upon his right to make them. "I believe quite strongly," he said, "that it is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities and to try and bring them into better public focus."

The cataclysmic failure of that effort--two members of the Synod are demanding that Williams resign, while his predecessor, Lord George Carey, calls the plan "disastrous for the nation"--cannot simply be blamed on the archbishop's tin ear for politics. The problem, shared by much of the Anglican establishment, is a culture of political correctness that is at once too generous and too stingy: an eagerness to overlook the staggering problems in Islamic thought with regard to democratic rights, but a reluctance to claim any decisive role for biblical religion in the formation and defense of those rights.

The backdrop of the archbishop's self-inflicted crisis is the growth of a militant Muslim population in the United Kingdom, alongside the appearance of Sharia tribunals for the wider Islamic community. They operate mostly informally, offering rulings in civil cases on everything from divorce disputes to property rights. Williams apparently wants these private tribunals, such as the Islamic Sharia Council in east London, to be legitimized--and regulated--by the state. They would offer a "supplementary jurisdiction," where Muslims could decide whether to resolve civil disputes in secular courts or within their own communities. "There needs to be access to recognized authority acting for a religious group," he said. "It is uncomfortably true that this introduces into our thinking about law what some would see as a 'market' element, a competition for loyalty."

The notion of a "competition for loyalty" is not merely an uncomfortable idea in a democracy--it is a poisonous idea. It ignores the genius and achievements of the Western legal tradition, especially its Anglo-American expression.

The concept of equal justice under the law was hammered out over centuries in Great Britain and the United States--from debates in the House of Commons to the sermons and pamphlet wars of religious leaders and activists. It proceeded from the Christian conception of "natural rights" and "natural law," the belief that every person, by virtue of his or her humanity, possessed inalienable rights and obligations. It was an Englishman, John Locke--in his Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration--who helped make these ideas the touchstone of liberal democracy. And, as Cambridge historian John Dunn argues, Locke's political conclusions were "saturated with Christian assumptions" about human dignity.

Nevertheless, Locke and his circle of reformers insisted that they were defending "what is common to all men." To be a citizen in a liberal democracy means to endorse, or to give one's loyalty, to the common good. In political terms, that requires impartial justice under the law. Most religious believers in the West have learned to uphold this political doctrine in practice, while still reserving their ultimate loyalties for their Creator.

Now, along comes the Archbishop of Canterbury, who suggests that this principle of civic peace and social justice is either outdated or overrated. Williams worries about "an unqualified secular legal monopoly" that marginalizes religious view points. He fears a breakdown in social solidarity if, amid massive religious pluralism, the state fails to offer "a higher level of attention to religious identity." Thus, there is "a bit of a risk" in the democratic idea that "everyone stands before the public tribunal on exactly equal terms."