The presumption of Melanie Phillips

Today the storm over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech last Thursday rumbles on, with the Scum newspaper having circulated a complaint form which it urged its readers to fill in and send to the General Synod, urging them to “sack” him. One hopes that they will put the petitions the same place the rest of the paper belongs: the recycling box. Meanwhile, Melanie Phillips has been running a diatribe against him on her blog, which also filled her column in the Daily Mail yesterday.

Phillips accuses him of a “betrayal of the Anglican Communion”, and suggests (here and here) that he stand aside in favour of Michael Nazir-Ali, “a man whose life is now in danger for having spoken the truth about Islam in a Britain whose religious and cultural identity he actually defends, but about whom Dr Williams has said not one word in support”. As is fairly common with people of Phillips’s persuasion, the truth does not matter to her. Nazir-Ali caused controversy, and was not defended by Dr Williams, because his allegation was false, a fact borne out by his failure to back it up.

Phillips shows extraordinary presumption in demanding the sacking or resignation of Dr Williams because of this. Phillips is not a Christian, Anglican or otherwise, and her opinions on what is appropriate for Dr Williams are irrelevant unless it directly affects her community, which this does not. The speech was about the status of another community; it is not as if he made an anti-Semitic remark, or referenced the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or called his flock out to beat up Jews or smash up synagogues. I cannot think of any reason why I would call for the sacking of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, the Chief Rabbi or any other religion’s clergy, although I might call for his arrest if he was encouraging attacks on Muslims, or Jews for that matter.

Phillips writes, regarding the status of the Beth Din court:

Jewish religious law in the UK has no legal authority over British Jews and no such binding force. Jews most certainly do not choose ‘whether to seek justice in one system or another’ except where their participation in Beth Din religious tribunals is entirely voluntary on the part of all concerned, such as in the informal arbitration of disputes. For the enforcement of justice, they must seek remedies from English law, just as they must be married or divorced under English law — Jewish marriage and divorce rituals having no official standing — for such status to be recognised by the state. It is a Jewish religious requirement for Jews to live under the law of the land in which they reside. It is simply astounding that Lambeth Palace continues to perpetuate a false impression about this. Do they really know nothing about Judaism? Why do they insist upon dragging the Jews into this?

However, as the BBC’s Law in Action programme demonstrated (it was repeated on Radio 4 last Sunday night), the Beth Din is in fact a court of arbitration - a court whose verdicts, if delivered after both parties agree to participate, can be enforced by a court of law if one party fails to abide by its ruling. It does not make it a parallel legal system, but it does make it a system of legally-enforceable arbitration, so while the parties’ participation in the court is voluntary (albeit subject to the same social pressures which are commonly used to oppose Muslims having access to courts of arbitration, as happened in Canada), its verdicts are legally-binding.

Elsewhere, Phillips rehashes the bigotry and ignorance which has characterised the media reaction to Dr Williams’s speech. For example, she alleges:

Sharia courts are dealing with Muslim criminals outside the criminal law; one reported case involved a gang of Somali youths who were allowed to go free after paying compensation to a teenager they had stabbed — with the police and courts apparently looking the other way.

What happened was that the victim, or his family, chose not to press charges but to settle the issue among themselves. Phillips, or I, might not agree with the decision, but it is theirs to make and perhaps the stabbing did not result in life-threatening or lasting serious injury. The insinuation seems to be that Shari’ah courts let criminals get off, but it may well be more justice or compensation than they would have got by going through the British courts and watching him get a slap on the wrist there, or claiming compensation that might never materialise (as is known to happen). She also cites one Dr Chris Sugden, who claimed to the Synod that:

Islam has never allowed itself to remain as a subservient legal system, neither can its system be taken piecemeal, on a pick or choose basis. It is exclusive and it is integral.

As I demonstrated in my last post, this is simply untrue. It is indeed possible to implement parts of the Shari’ah and not others; one must implement it all only when one can, which Muslims in this country accept is not the case here. Muslim family law, in particular, is implemented without the criminal law in most of the Muslim world, and in other countries where Muslims are a minority, such as India.

I find the harshness and intemperance of the reaction to Dr Williams’s speech amazing. Had the speech been discussed rationally, rather than used as a pretext for a Muslim-bashing orgy, most likely the most that would have come out of it is a better-established Muslim arbitration court similar to the Beth Din. Had it been about any other minority group’s law, there would not have been anything like the level of anger and indignation which has been displayed this past weekend (particularly from Phillips). People seem to forget that Dr Williams is a clergyman, not a politician, and is there not to be liked but to be a guide, and is certainly not there to defend any secular political order. He, and his predecessors, have been criticised in the past for following society rather than leading it, but when he goes against the grain he is accused of being on his knees before enemies of society (and not the ones who attack fire-fighting crews either). Generally speaking, clergy are dismissed for acts of impropriety, adopting unsound theological positions, or becoming unfit for office; making an unpopular suggestion about a political matter really does not fall into any of these categories, and his being forced to step down would make the Church look very odd and very weak indeed.

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  • Masha’Allah all good points, and I agree with you all the way. However, it is unfortunate that our opinions, no matter how rational, maybe tossed aside, simply because the Archbishop’s comments were somewhat in our favour.

    Do you have any idea of how much support he is getting from the more open-minded of his flock? Unfortunately, it is usually the “extremists” who always get the most column inches.

  • Thersites

    “Phillips is not a Christian, Anglican or otherwise, and her opinions on what is appropriate for Dr Williams are irrelevant unless it directly affects her community,”

    However, DR Williams is head of the legally-established religion in England and his opinions affect the English- and British community- of which, Ms Philips, you and I are all a part, so her opinions are relevant.

  • thabet

    Mad Mel neglected to mention that Israel has sharia courts.

  • It’s strange, I haven’t found the media response at all surprising, but then I survey most of the Muslim stories in the media daily and it’s depressing work. Considering the furore invoked in liberal, multicultural Canada on a similar issue, and given the AoC’s media clumsiness, I’m more surprised by the surprise!

  • Rowan Williams has more important things on his desk than sharia law. His communion is breaking apart over openly gay bishop Gene Robinson. If neither side backs down schism is inevitable. Williams is already marked by Christian conservatives because of his reluctance to throw the Episcopal church in the United States out of the Anglican communion over bishop Robinson. Supporting sharia law doesn’t make matters that much worse for him.