Thursday, February 14, 2008

The archbishop and Sharia

Everyone will, I am sure, have their own opinions about last week's row over the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech at the Royal Courts of Justice, a speech he had been invited to make on Civil and Religious Law in England, part of a series on Islam and the law.

For what it is worth, since various people have asked me, I think that Rowan Williams was right to raise this thorny issue, and the storms of protest serve to reveal how important it is that we should have this debate. Some people have said that "if people [meaning Muslims] come here they should live by our rules", but this ignores the issue of who are the "us" who are making the rules. Britain now has a large number of British Muslims - they are just as much "us" as Christians, Jews, atheists and all the other religious and secular groups that make up our society. They have the same rights to make their voices heard, and to share in shaping the nation that is theirs as much as it is anyone elses.
Our history, our law and our national consciousness has been shaped and reshaped many times over the centuries. The hop industry, for example, was brought to Britain by Hugenot refugees - Protestants from Northern Europe who fled the religious wars of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. Where would Kent have been without that contribution to our county's life? Yet at first, putting hops in beer was seen as distinctly "un-English". That example may not seem a good parallel with sharia law, but it brings home to us the fact that the people who come here do, as the archbishop controversially said, "unavoidably" change what we think of as "our" nation and "our" national character (and even "our" beer!) There have been plenty of people whom we would now count as cherished ancestors, people who formed that idea of "Britishness" that we are so fond of, who, at the time were less than welcome. The Normans, Vikings, Danes, Jutes, Saxons and Romans, all came to Britain with their own ideas about government and religion, and all, in some way shaped and changed the populations that they found here.

While existing populations have always regarded the new ideas of new groups with some measure of suspicion, once people are here they will "unavoidably" have an effect, and often some of that effect will turn out to be positive and welcome. What matters is whether we have the courage to engage with those new ideas or not, and try to find some way peacefully and constructively to incorporate them into our national life.

Here are some links - the first to the speech that caused all the furore, and the others to articles which seemed to me to have helpful comments to make on it. You are, as always, welcome to disagree !