Sunday, 10 February 2008

Clerical error

I've struggled to write anything on the whole "Sharia law inevitable" brouhaha, mainly because I find the whole thing so damn depressing. I'm honestly not sure which was worse:

1) An intelligent and highly educated man failing to understand the importance of the concepts "equality before the law" and "inalienable rights".

2) The hideous knee-jerk airing of some fairly ignorant and offensive stereotypes that immediately followed it, including: "What have the Muslims done for us?", "If they don't like it they can go back where they came from" and "You'd think more people would actually join the BNP and stand up for their country".

Rarely have I felt so damn proud to be British.

So in part I feel sorry for Williams, whose opinion of the standard of public debate in this country is clearly an order of magnitude or two higher than is merited. But then I re-read his speech. I have two basic problems with it: he doesn't recognise the difference between acknowledging problems and dealing with them; secondly, (and understandably given his position) he's altogether too optimistic about the role religion could play in a secular legal system.

So in the first instance, he acknowledges relatively minor issues, such as 'vexatious' claims (e.g. refusing to sell Bibles, despite working in a bookshop) and more major ones, such as the risk of entrenching oppression by limiting victims' access to legal remedy. But there's no attempt to deal with these problems. Of the first, he says "The secular lawyer needs to know where the potential conflict is real, legally and religiously serious, and where it is grounded in either nuisance or ignorance." Fine - but how? Let's say that a member of the Wee Frees, working in the waste disposal industry, refuses to service Catholic homes, is fired and brings the matter to a tribunal. Is this "real, legally and religiously serious"? Let's assume the offender is clearly sincere in his belief. But is it a legitimate belief? His Minister says so - so is that OK? It'll be a brave cleric who publicly admits that a clearly devout member of his flock is somehow ignorant of his religion. Or if we don't accept believers' word on what constitutes a "proper" religious objection, shall we ask non-believers? I can't imagine that would be an acceptable substitute: "We checked your story with a rabbi, an atheist and an imam - and they all think you're talking nonsense."

In the second instance, let's say a divorce goes through a sharia court in which the woman gets a massively inequitable settlement. So she brings the matter to the "universal" courts. In defence, the husband produces a signed agreement that sharia law will apply to any divorce. "Ah" says the wife, "I was coerced into signing that by my father, brothers and husband-to-be." What then? Obviously agreements signed under duress are no agreements at all - but what's the standard of proof for duress? If you simply have to claim it to overturn a sharia ruling, then the whole exercise is pointless. If you have to prove the content of conversations that took place years ago, you're basically doomed. And more importantly of course, what of the women who never complain, because they are still under duress? From one perspective, they're no worse off under the new system than they are now (that is, very badly off indeed) but now there's a patina of respectability covering their situation - the law connives at the pretence that this what they want. Otherwise, of course, they'd have brought the matter the courts, and we'd have dealt with it - like a shot, by golly.

Finally, there's the Archbishop's insistence that there is a greater role for theology in law, and that the Enlightenment values which gave us the rule of law, human rights, etc. are all an elaborate trap which will deny our very humanity and bring us to a new Cultural Revolution. This is where I get depressed again. Those Enlightenment values were in direct opposition to theology in law (e.g. Divine Right) and far from denying humanity give us all the basic freedom (or "space" to use the Archbishop's jargon) to exercise that humanity. Freedom that will be lacking once God starts telling us what to do.

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