Friday, February 08, 2008

Sharia law in the UK?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has stirred up the biggest religious controversy in the UK for a long time. From the BBC News website:
Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion.

For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty"....

... Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts - I think that's a bit of a danger".
Dr Williams is a thoughtful person, and I imagine that this proposal is because he sees religious and ethnic groups regarding themselves as culturally isolated from society. Unsurprisingly, this has led to vocal objections from people in society who already think that the cultural isolation of different ethnic and religious groups has gone far enough, and what is needed is greater integration.

I share the concern that people who have chosen to make their home here don't feel as though UK culture is relevant for them, and as a Christian, I also feel that the values of society are increasingly adrift from those values that I would regard as ideal. However, I don't think that the correct answer is to allow them - or me - to opt out of society. In fact, I am told in the Bible that I should expect to feel like a stranger in a foreign country - I'm not supposed to feel that I belong here.

What else does the Bible have to say about this? The teaching to Christians in the book of Romans is:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
This certainly wasn't written in an era where the authorities shared the values of the Christians. The Roman emperor was regarded as a God, and Christian monotheism led to a direct clash between them and the authorities. The first day of the week was the day when Christians met - but they didn't have a special holiday at this stage: Christians would gather at dawn or after dark, since they had no specific entitlement to a day off. And Christians at this stage weren't in positions of authority - they had no way of securing any sort of privilege. So instructing Christians that it was right for them to submit to authorities was not an easy teaching for them to accept.

Jesus' attitude was the same. The nation of Israel was under occupation. When challenged by Jews as to whether it was appropriate, in these circumstances, to pay taxes to the occupying nation, Jesus said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's." On another occasion, he went even further. One of the Roman laws was that Roman soldiers were entitled to demand that locals carry their equipment for one mile. Jesus said, "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."

My understanding is that this doesn't mean that you do what "the authorities" say, right or wrong. Your allegiance to God does override your obedience to "the authorities". But submitting to the authorities does mean that if your conscience leads you to disobey the authorities, you accept that they have the right to punish. This has been the attitude of Christians where there has been a clash with the authorities on many occasions since the New Testament era. For example, in the civil disobedience led by Martin Luther King, the protesters sought to behave in a way that was above reproach, but they accepted the authority of the state where their actions had led them to break the law. In the communist era behind the Iron Curtain, Christians were not prepared to obey the state and cease meeting together - or even only meet in a state-approved way - and this led to many Christians being imprisoned for their faith.

At the moment, UK law contains a great deal of religious tolerance. People of many different religions are allowed freedom of practice, and there are few points at which religious practice is constrained by national law. Whilst there is a danger when people feel that society has little to do with them, I think it is considerably more dangerous to allow cultural loyalty to transcend - not what I would consider "state loyalty" (as Williams put it) - but the order of the state, particularly in liberal democracies, where such order is effectively a social contract. You don't have to be loyal to the state to accept its authority. If you feel so strongly that the laws of the state clash with your conscience, you always have the option to move to somewhere more congenial to your beliefs.

Another issue, of course, is where lines are drawn. It is all very well to grant privileges to Islamic religious law - but why just Islamic law? Already the sensitivities of Hindus have been disturbed by the killing of a cow in Hertfordshire - surely this is a classic example of a case where religious sensitivities ought to be considered alongside state law? But why draw the line at the traditional religions? Isn't that discriminating against those people in non-traditional religions? My suspicion is that this sort of precedent will just lead to the breakdown of any sort of coherence in society, and any real regard for the structures of civil society. It is inevitable that the dominant culture will end up in a privileged position - I can't see that societies can work in any other way, and this is the case around the world. What is most important in a liberal society is that those cultures that aren't dominant are allowed the freedom to express themselves, where possible. This doesn't mean that the whole concept of society is undermined, with everybody doing their own thing. It does mean that there is a definite national or societal identity, and this is borne in mind as people of different cultures adopt that nation or society.