New poll: Is the Archbishop of Canterbury right?

by Stephen Tall on February 8, 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has sparked controversy with his lecture yesterday arguing that the adoption of some parts of Sharia law in the UK is “unavoidable”:

it might be possible to think in terms of … a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that ‘power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents’. This may include aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution … a universalist Enlightenment system has to weigh the possible consequences of ghettoising and effectively disenfranchising a minority, at real cost to overall social cohesion and creativity. … But if what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable.“

The media reaction has been trenchant (The Sun: What a Burkha!) certainly more so than Dr Williams’ often opaque views on this issue. Lib Dem blogger of the year James Graham has taken him to task here: Does Rowan Williams have any more idea of what he’s going on about than I do. Fellow bogger Brian Sloan meanwhile has written In Defence of Dr Williams.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has released a statement arguing the Archbishop is wrong:

Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another. There is a huge difference between respecting people’s right to follow their own beliefs and allowing them to excuse themselves from the rule of law.”

What do you think? LDV’s poll is now open (right-hand clumn), asking the simple Yes/No question: Is the Archbishop of Canterbury right to say that adoption of Sharia law is unavoidable?

Results of last poll:

LDV readers are Obama-maniacs, with two-thirds of you backing Barack to become the first black President of the USA, ahead of the first woman (Hillary Clinton), the oldest ever incoming President (McCain), and the first ever Mormon (Mitt Romney). Here’s what you told us:

Who do you want to be the next President of the USA?

Sen. Barack Obama (Dem): 65% (215)
• Sen. Hillary Clinton (Dem): 26% (86)
• Sen. John McCain (GOP): 8% (28)
• Gov. Mitt Romney (GOP): 1% (2)

Total Votes: 331; Polling: 31st January – 8th February

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No comments

Why make it a poll? This is going to be 100% against.

I almost suspect that Atkinson is a closet atheist, and he’s trying to accelerate the secularisation of Britain.

Nick Clegg’s comments are all very well, but he could have been even harsher, capturing the mood of the UK as a whole, as well as the average Lib Dem voter.

by Anax on February 8, 2008 at 9:23 am. Reply #

Most of sharia law is incompatible with British law, starting with the most fundamental point that women and their statements are worth less under that law than men.

Even trying to use Sharia law for arbitration purposes, given non-judicial arbitration is encouraged in this country, could be a problem; possibly a disaster. If a business woman and a business man (or man and wife) went to Sharia arbitration and the woman lost, then she could appeal in the civil courts. They would examine sharia law, discover that the woman’s testimony is valued less and would consequently rule that sharia law is inherently unfair.

Cue flag burnings, burning effigies of the judges, threats of murder and terrorism, the usual reaction when anyone dares to criticise Islam.

Everyone should be treated equally before the law. There is already too much pandering in our society to religious sensibilities and it’s starting to creep into our law. Doctors and pharamcists refusing to sell/prescribe the pill, or condoms because they’re catholic; Muslims refusing to do the job they are paid for, stocking shelves, because they happen to contain alcohol; Christians demanding the right to disobey clothing guidelines so they can wear their favourite jewellery or Muslim medics endangering our safety because they refuse to roll up their sleeves and clean properly because it violates their dress code; Stays of execution on regulations for charities and businesses to stop discriminating against gays because their owners are religious and don’t want to give up on their bigotry.

Any law or regulation which applies only to certain affiliations, or a ruling that is modified because of those affiliations, is inherently unjust and divisive and should not exist in any country claiming to posses a fair and impartial justice system.

by MartinSGill on February 8, 2008 at 10:12 am. Reply #

Not the most interesting or controversial poll ever. Even the couple who think it IS inevitable are probably depressed fatalists rather than keen enthusiasts.

by Tom Papworth on February 8, 2008 at 11:30 am. Reply #

Blunkett (on Today) described those who support Rowan Williams on this issue as “the liberals”.

by Julian H on February 8, 2008 at 12:30 pm. Reply #

I am appalled by the depth of ignorance and prejudice which Rowan williams has managed to expose with a lecture and BBC interview which were obviously well beyond the mental capacity of most British journalistrs, politicians and commentators to deal with.
I am an atheist, yet I thinkI have a better understanding what the Archbishop is getting at than do most people of faith.
Of course some versions of sharia would by unacceptable under British law and incompatible with our society. But as the Archbishop pointed out, other bits are already accommodated within British law.
It is a fact that Islamic Sharia Councils have been in existence in Britain since (I think) 1982 or thereabouts. They operate more informally than some comparable judicial and quasi-judicial authorities eg the London and Manchester Beth Din for Orthodox Jews, but could be given similar degree of recognition.
And of course the Beth Din are not the only comparable case. The Church of England has ecclesistaical and consistory courts, the General Medical Council has special jurisdiction over doctors, and even this morning we have English sports authorities bewailing the fact that some athlete (Dwayne or Duane Chambers? – forgive me if that’s wrong) may be allowed to win his way to representing UK at the Olympics despite a drug conviction which they thought would enable them to ban him.
Nick Clegg’s knee jerk reaction, while not quite as berkish as most, was deeply disappointing not only to me as a Liberal, but also, I bet, to lots of devout and non-extremist Muslims who have been looking to the Lib Dems for a bit of understanding and support.
I thought Clegg’s insistence on the importance of equality under the law was especially inappropriate just at the moment, when he is an MP and the public are being treated to daily proof that MPs have special privileges under the law which render them not equal at all. Time to grow up, Nick.

by Robin Young on February 8, 2008 at 12:47 pm. Reply #

Sorry, my fingers seem to have fallen over themselves typing “ecclesiastical”, but I expect you know what I mean.

by Robin Young on February 8, 2008 at 12:48 pm. Reply #

The Archbishop is completely, utterly, and comprehensively wrong. Obviously. But there’s an important point to be noted here. “What a Burkha!” says The Sun (great headline) – and indeed I have been calling him the “bearded idiot” for a while now, in the hope that this moniker might achieve some currency.

But of course the Archbishop is no idiot. He is intelligent, thoughtful, highly educated, and cultured. So . . . what the hell is going on? The answer is that, for a little while now, the religions have been operating in a deliberate and cynical unholy alliance to protect their interests and maintain their special privileges.

Are we really going to stand by and let them get away with this? Time to cast Williams and his Muppet show out of the Lords for good, and remind the Bishops in no uncertain terms of their true place in society – alongside Mystic Meg and every other common charlatan infesting the land.

I feel better now.

by Laurence Boyce on February 8, 2008 at 1:26 pm. Reply #

@Robin Young.

I recommend you go to the BBC website and listen to the pod casts of this morning’s Today show. The one on Sharia law addresses the point you make and points out clearly ( a London Registrar who works with those courts) how they fit within British law, not along side it as Williams is suggesting.

All the arbitration courts, be it football, trade or religious, are all subject to UK civil law. All their verdicts can be appealed by going to a proper legal court, and they are all legally required to uphold and conform to the laws of the land, which means giving men and women, gays and straights, old and young, blonds and brunettes, footballers and cricketers equality and an equal chance of justice. Sharia enshrines the inferiority of women and hence cannot conform to British law without some serious re-writing. (A quick Sharia law summary)

On divorce for example it was pointed out specifically that Jewish couples need to go through the civil proceedings. The Beth Din court merely cover those aspects required by Jewish custom/law in addition to those required by British law. Under Sharia law a man simply has to say “I divorce you” three times for it be legally binding and a women cannot divorce a man.

A system as unfair as that has no place in British society; or any society for that matter.

by MartinSGill on February 8, 2008 at 1:45 pm. Reply #

So an end to the exemption that allows Kosher and Halal meat from the legal requirement to stun animals first?

by Manfarang on February 8, 2008 at 2:00 pm. Reply #

7. Hear hear. Is the amount of media coverage that this man gets not severely disproportionate to the number of people who follow his organisation?

by Julian H on February 8, 2008 at 2:20 pm. Reply #


Yes. If they didn’t cloak what they did in religion, they’d be legally guilty of animal cruelty, instead of just morally guilty.

by MartinSGill on February 8, 2008 at 6:52 pm. Reply #

Julian H at 12:30, I’m sick to my back teeth of Blunkett and the rest of the Scum and Daily Hate Mail “reading” morons calling things like this “liberal” when it quite blatantly has nothing to do with true liberalism. It’s a pet hate of mine.

Were he to bother to find out what liberalism is, and interact with people who actually are liberals (10 minutes on the LibDem blogosphere is all it would take), he might acquire a clue.

It’s time to take back our word!

by Asquith on February 8, 2008 at 7:45 pm. Reply #

“Any law or regulation which applies only to certain affiliations, or a ruling that is modified because of those affiliations, is inherently unjust and divisive and should not exist in any country claiming to posses a fair and impartial justice system.”

But it’s how common is that? There is an exemption for Sikhs as regard motorcycle helmets and, lesser known Quakers as regards aspects of the regulations regarding weddings (I’ve a feeling that Quakers are the only religion allowed to meet with the doors barred and locked but that might not be true any more)

More fundamentally wasn’t this the argument advanced against those dangerous upstarts who refused to swear oaths?

by Hywel Morgan on February 8, 2008 at 10:27 pm. Reply #

Rowan Williams is a man in need of a mission. Perhaps he should try Christianity; it’s unfashionable, I know, but stick with it Rowan – you never know.

by Martin Land on February 8, 2008 at 11:17 pm. Reply #

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but… Where’s Boycie when you need him…

by Bullingdon Bertie on February 9, 2008 at 12:54 am. Reply #

I’m at comment 7. I thought my remark was reasonably excoriating. Was it too tame for you? But I don’t think I’m going to write an article on this one – what with near universal condemnation of the “bearded idiot,” there’s no need.

Except that he’s no idiot . . .

by Laurence Boyce on February 9, 2008 at 4:37 am. Reply #

“No” (in answer to the question above). More detail in a minute.

Meanwhile, LDV readers may be excited to know there have been quite a few more articles about the Archbishop’s bid for more unaccountable religious power since your round-up above: The Sound of Gunfire; my own fisking of the Archbishop’s speech, at Love and Liberty; The Willow Man’s in-depth rebuttal of my piece; Liberal Polemic; several contributions from Liberal Burblings, including the cheerily optimistic conclusion that every burqa has a silver lining; Ripplestone Review; The Diary of Chris K; and of course The Very Fluffy Diary of Millennium Dome, Elephant.

by Alex Wilcock on February 9, 2008 at 10:02 am. Reply #

In a word, “No,” but the Sharia business is really in the speech as a distraction.

Not everyone will read my 4,000 words on the subject (, as my round-up of Lib Dem blog links seems to have been blocked), though I believe it’s more consistent, more entertaining and far more readable than the Archbishop’s 6,200-word speech, which I dissect in detail. For all the spin that he’s one of the country’s greatest brains, his speech is an impressive set of references without any coherent argument to draw them together; it’s a self-contradictory mess with no conclusion.

Some of my main points include a defence of the Rule of Law and an explanation of what it means to counter the Archbishop’s straw men (the most gobsmacking of which is the claim on which his argument rests that the state wishes to force people into just one social identity, never mind that he then suggests ghettoisation as the answer). The business about Sharia is largely a red herring, albeit a dangerous one for people who’d be forced by social pressure into taking up unequal arbitration, which isn’t something he finds space for in his 6,200 words. His speech is very unclear, both referring to Sharia-based arbitration that already happens as if it’s some brilliant new idea that an oppressive secular state would forbid, and apparently calling for more that exists now, but not explaining what. It’s difficult not to conclude that he’s just an unelected, unaccountable ‘community leader’ who wishes to bolster his Muslim equivalents, but there’s more to it than that. His speech is really about more power for religion in general and for him and his 26 unelected bishop buddies in the Lords in particular, though when his speech turns to the goodies he wants for Christian theocrats he mentions more religious opt-outs but is very careful to avoid specifics (with which people could disagree, and which would make him seem less reasonable).

He and his apologists have been spinning like Labour that anyone who disagrees with him hasn’t read the speech, has misunderstood him if they have because we’re all very stupid, and is probably a racist. The spin is at the same time that he was merely starting a debate, and that no-one can honestly put an alternative view. Patronising, mendacious spin-doctors like the Archbishop and his Oddjob the Bishop of Hulme have utterly refused to admit that anyone might have an honest disagreement. Well, I’ve read it, and feel free to take me to task on what I think of it, rather than just claiming it’s impossible to read it and disagree…

by Alex Wilcock on February 9, 2008 at 10:05 am. Reply #

Having read the lecture it seems Dr Williams has been grossly misquoted by the tabloids

See link to the lecture and make your own mind up

by Steve on February 9, 2008 at 12:59 pm. Reply #

As a liberal i am disappointed at the reaction from MPs, party leaders and of course the press to the Archbishop’s comments. Any attempt to create a debate in order to improve community cohesion should be welcomed and though it may cause controversy that should never be a barrier to important intellectual discussion.

by Adam Evans on February 9, 2008 at 1:50 pm. Reply #

“Is the Archbishop of Canterbury right to say that adoption of Sharia law is unavoidable?”

That’s a “When did you stop beating your wife?” type of question.

He didn’t say that the adoption of Sharia law is unavoidable. He used the word “unavoidable” once in his lecture at the end of a huge sentence which was talking about a “market” element in the approach to law – the sentence you generously quoted.

In his World at One interview he answered a question about whether he saw “the application of Sharia in certain circumstances” as unavoidable and he said “it seems unavoidable”. That is not the same as “the adoption of Sharia law”.

Indeed, Sharia law is working in the country in certain circumstances, as Robin Young has pointed out, so not only is it “unavoidable”, it actually exists.

by Paul Walter on February 9, 2008 at 2:15 pm. Reply #

Having read the lecture, it seems Dr Williams has been grossly misquoted by the tabloids.

That’s a given. That’s what tabloids do. This morning, senior figures from the CofE were calling his words naive and foolish. Needless to say, I think his remarks are a disgrace. Looks like the only people who are actually pleased with him are Muslims. Doubtless the bearded idiot will be expecting the favour to be returned at some point.

by Laurence Boyce on February 9, 2008 at 2:40 pm. Reply #

#4 Julian H – this is the most significant indicator of what is behind this manoeuveur.

A rancid sore within society has been cast open in the form of an intellectual debate.
Williams is so closely associated with the anti-conservative wing of the CofE that it creates an open goal for the enemies of liberalism to castigate him, and all liberals by association.

This has political machinations writ large all over it – it is a put-up job by those with ultimate political power in this country (ie Gordon Brown) to cast him between uber-rationality and reaction in the light of the ‘voice of reason’.

All you aspiring politicians out there, take notes and learn, learn how to profit from pulling the levers of power, and learn how to avoid being divided by the axe of public opinion.

by Oranjepan on February 9, 2008 at 3:43 pm. Reply #

How to profit from a controversy? – a classic political recipe.

Rise above the fray, stand back and guage the public opinion. When the initial storm has cleared, stir it up again with a decisive intervention and ride the wave of public relief all the way up the polls.

If you want to start a controversy choose your players wisely for the relevance of their constituency, for no substitutes will be allowed even at the end of turns.

Hijacking the platform is allowed, but be careful to remember that the audience is the final judge.

by Oranjepan on February 9, 2008 at 4:08 pm. Reply #

Laurence Boyce, the majority of Muslims are actually quite severely displeased with the Archdruid’s outburst. As I would be if I’d been insulted and patronised so.

by Asquith on February 9, 2008 at 4:30 pm. Reply #

Abstention – your vote is on the wrong wording. It asks if the Archbishop is right to say that the adoption of Sharia law “is” inevitable.
He said “it seems to be” inevitable – not an absolute, but raising this academically as a point for consideration.
There is a world of difference!

by Ian Trickett on February 10, 2008 at 8:39 am. Reply #


by ibrahim hussain on February 10, 2008 at 8:58 am. Reply #

So you hold liberal views, do you, Ibrahim Hussein?

by Asquith on February 10, 2008 at 9:26 am. Reply #

Laurence Boyce, the majority of Muslims are actually quite severely displeased with the Archdruid’s outburst. As I would be if I’d been insulted and patronised so.

I’m just going by the Muslims who have been popping up all over the media to give him their full support. Then there’s Ibrahim as well . . .

by Laurence Boyce on February 10, 2008 at 9:31 am. Reply #

The Archbishop of Canterbury, attempting to defuse the row about his comments last week, has told the General Synod: “I must of course take responsibility for any unclarity… and for any misleading choice of words… some of what has been heard is a very long way indeed from what was actually said.”

Isn’t that like saying ‘I take full responsibility, and furthermore, it’s not my fault’? As consistent as his argument last week was on careful scrutiny, then. As his speech argued several different ways at once, and must have done so quite deliberately if he’s remotely as intelligent as his spin doctors insist, this ‘apology’ is just more self-serving spin. And, as before, he’s refused to engage with anyone who’s argued with what he said, merely whined that he’s been misunderstood, as if no right-thinking person could disagree with him. Such arrogance. Why does he get a free ticket to make laws over the rest of us, again?

by Alex Wilcock on February 11, 2008 at 6:08 pm. Reply #

Don’t be too hard on him Alex. After all, the entire project of religion is pretty much one big misunderstanding.

by Laurence Boyce on February 11, 2008 at 6:31 pm. Reply #

Its been an entirely avoidable presentational fiasco which the Church of England pays good money to bright staffers to avoid. Having read the lecture I think I do disagree with him but its worth remembering.

1. He has been hideously misquoted. Even by tabloid standards

2. We do already have varying degrees of accomodation in law for various religions. Ironically the establishment of the Church of England being the most obvious.

3. I think all he was really talking about was a muslim equivalent of the Beth Din’s

4. he’s one of the most intelligent and decent folk in public life and i think we should cut him some slack.

by David Morton on February 11, 2008 at 8:08 pm. Reply #

It’s been an entirely avoidable presentational fiasco which the Church of England pays good money to bright staffers to avoid.

Ah yes, they’ve got lots of money, haven’t they? And there was me thinking their kingdom was not of this world. Doh!

We do already have varying degrees of accommodation in law for various religions. Ironically the establishment of the Church of England being the most obvious.

No irony at all. Losing the established church is precisely what the Archbishop is desperate to avoid with this cynical ploy of entrenching the role of faith in society, never mind if they happen to be faiths which he no more believes in than I do.

I think all he was really talking about was a Muslim equivalent of the Beth Din’s.

Yes, and wasn’t it sickening to hear Inayat Bunglawala on Any Questions making favourable comparisons with Beth Din’s, when the MCB can’t even bring itself to acknowledge Holocaust memorial day?

He’s one of the most intelligent and decent folk in public life and I think we should cut him some slack.

Totally agree. Let’s cut the bearded idiot some slack. Preferably some time when he’s dangling over the edge of a precipice.

by Laurence Boyce on February 11, 2008 at 8:54 pm. Reply #

Comment is Free the Guardian website has several articles on the subject which are informative

Nick Clegg’s comments are ignorant

by Yasmin Zalzala on February 11, 2008 at 8:54 pm. Reply #

“Yes, and wasn’t it sickening to hear Inayat Bunglawala on Any Questions making favourable comparisons with Beth Din’s, when the MCB can’t even bring itself to acknowledge Holocaust memorial day?”

Not really. Because they do.

by Hywel Morgan on February 11, 2008 at 9:05 pm. Reply #

Do what? Acknowledge Holocaust memorial day? That must be a recent development then. I must try to keep up . . .

by Laurence Boyce on February 11, 2008 at 9:42 pm. Reply #

To say that the introduction of a system of law, or a part thereof, is “unavoidable” is hardly consistent with the Christian outlook.

Christianity, as I understand it, holds that human beings have free will, and that bad things can be changed or prevented through human agency.

Rowan Williams is yet another self-hating phoney “liberal” grovelling to a bunch of crazed religious zealots who want to take the world back to the Dark Ages.

There is a story in the press today about the Islamic custom of forcing young people to marry first cousins, and how this is putting the children of such unions at risk of genetic defects. And what do the Rowan Williamses have to say about it? After a very heavy dose of grovelling, tell the mullahs in a very soft voice that consanguinous marriages might not be a terribly good idea (but only once one’s tongue is heavily charged with boot polish).

The notion that arranged marriages are evil (a form of rape, in point of fact), and that Islam itself is evil. No, no. Facing up to the truth. That wouldn’t do at all. At least not in the world Archbishop Williams inhabits.

by Sesenco on February 11, 2008 at 11:45 pm. Reply #

I’m still waiting for Gordon Brown to intervene decisively and to universal approval, proving he instigated the controversy and used ABC as a proxy by which to guage public opinion and thereby bolster his poll ratings.

by Thomas on February 12, 2008 at 2:43 pm. Reply #

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