Meddlesome Priests

An open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury
on reading his lecture Islam in English Law

    With great respect, I think you are confused about the way the law works in a mature democracy.

Nothing in English law forbids conscientious objection (this was so even during the second world war). Nor are various forms of mediation and dispute resolution in any way "illegal" per se; though they could become so if, in practice, they infringed the law of the land - such as might be the case if one of the parties to a dispute were coerced into accepting a resolution of a Sharia court.

Where both sides agree a priori - and without coercion - to the decision of a religious court, the law of the land need not intervene.

It seems to me, therefore, and doubtless to many of your critics, that you may be raising a non-issue; and doing so in a way likely to inflame opinion and to foment misunderstanding.

If, on the other hand, you are claiming that religious 'laws' should, in some circumstances (whatever those might be), have enforceable legal status, then you are on shakier ground. You seem to be suggesting as much when you say:

'There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts. I think that's a bit of a danger.'

One wonders, because you do not say, what danger you have in mind.

However, what is really troubling about that statement is the implied conflict between the law of the land and "anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance". I owe allegiance to many things: to my beliefs about how the world should be run, to various organizations of which I am a member, to my family, to friends, to my philosophical, political and religious convictions (some of them deeply at odds with current received opinion in the western world); but these allegiances and loyalties are not grounds for modifying or supplementing the law. If I think some or all of my beliefs should be enshrined in law, then I am free to lobby for legislative change. What I do not expect is to operate a parallel or supplementary system simply because the prevailing one doesn't suit me.

That, I contend, is the fundamental weakness of your argument. It is weakened still further, in my view, by what seems to be your tacit assumption that religion has a role at all in our legislative arrangements. It may be that the Judeo-Christian tradition has contributed to our legal system; but so have other traditions. And what we have accepted from any of them has been highly selective - as even a cursory reading of the Talmud (or the Torah) will demonstrate. But parliament now makes the law, and the judiciary administers it. Ours is a secular state as far as concerns the law and for the best of all possible reasons: because it allows citizens of all religions, beliefs, loyalties and allegiances to receive equal treatment.

It follows that our legal system does not rest - to quote from your own description of Sharia - "... on (someone's) conviction that it represents the mind of God..."

Represents the mind of God? It is worth recalling Montaigne's dismissal of the idea that this might lie within the scope of anyone here on earth:

"... se donner l’avantage d’avoir dans la tête les bornes et limites de la volonté de Dieu et de la puissance de notre mère nature; n’y a point de plus notable folie au monde que de les ramener à la mesure de notre capacité et suffisance."

But perhaps the most alarming element of your thesis is the tacit assumption that justice dispensed by clerics working under divine guidance will somehow produce results of which we can universally approve; always provided we can find a way of avoiding those judgment's and punishments of which we disapprove (decapitation, cutting off limbs, stoning to death and so on). You don't offer a methodology for finding such a way - perhaps wisely because I doubt that one exists.

Divine authority has a rather poor record in the justice department. You, of all people, hardly need reminding that, not long ago, ecclesiastical judges thought God required them to burn people at the stake for questioning the Trinity. Crusaders happily butchered the heathen - and Christians of a different orthodoxy too - because they, and the priests who egged them on, thought they knew the mind of God. God apparently told the Europeans who conquered the Americas that it was perfectly in order to massacre the indigenous inhabitants and steal their land. Divinely-inspired priests were in the forefront of the Bessarabian pogroms of 1903 -6 against the Jews.

The problem, of course, is not with God - however we might define that concept - but with those who purport to know his mind: with clerics who believe that wearing the cloth confers on them a right to pass judgments on their fellow citizens, and who carry in their hearts the conviction - a deranged one in my view - that they act in God's name.

I have no doubt at all, Dr Williams, that you are a very fine and honorable person. But you belong to a class of people - the priesthood - that has a disgraceful history of sanctioning - and actively sponsoring - war, murder, torture, witch hunts and pogroms - in the name of God and his laws. You can hardly be surprised that many people want none of it.