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Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to The Religion Report, on a momentous day for the nation.

Today on the program we're looking at the furious public reaction to the Archbishop of Canterbury's suggestion that some form of sharia law is inevitable in Britain.

Well here now is the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on BBC 4's "World at One" last week.

Rowan Williams: It seems unavoidable, and indeed as a matter of fact certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society, and under our law. So it's not as if we're bringing in an alien and rival system. We already have in this country a number of situations in which the law, the internal law of religious communities is recognised by the law of the land, as justifying conscientious objections, in certain circumstances. So I think we need to look at this with a clear eye, and not imagine either that we know exactly what we mean by sharia, and just associate it with what we know about Saudi Arabia, or whatever. So I don't think we should instantly spring to the conclusion that the whole of that world of jurisprudence and practice is somehow monstrously incompatible with human rights simply because it doesn't immediately fit with how we understand it. And as I said earlier, it's not something that's absolutely peculiar to Islam. We have Orthodox Jewish courts operating in this country, not to mention the questions about how the consciences of Catholics, Anglicans and others who have difficulty about issues like abortion are accommodated within the law. So the whole idea that there are perfectly proper ways in which the law of the land pays respect to custom and community, that's already there.

Interviewer: And your concern is that that is in some ways under threat; the ability of religious people to be true to their faith as well as true to their role as a citizen in the secular State.

Rowan Williams: I think at the moment there's a great deal of confusion about this. A lot of what's been written, whether it was about the Catholic church's adoption agencies last year, sometimes what's written about Jewish or Muslim communities, a lot of what's written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody. Now that principle that there's one law for everybody, is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy. But I think it's a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties, which shape and dictate how they behave in society, and that the law needs to take some account of that. An approach to law which simply says there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, I think that's a bit of a danger.

Interviewer: And that's why sharia should have its place?

Rowan Williams: That's why there's a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with aspects of other kinds of religious law.

Stephen Crittenden: The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on BBC-4.

Well The Sun has called him a silly old goat; The Telegraph said his idea that there shouldn't be an 'unqualified legal monopoly' in Britain is fatuous; The Times suggested he'd gone bonkers one day, and then accused him the next day of being a traitor.

There have been calls for him to resign, and just about everyone thinks his authority is in tatters.

But the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, can't seem to see what was wrong about what he said, in fact he now says he was misunderstood.

What seems incredible is his suggestion that limited recognition of sharia would promote social cohesion in Britain. Perhaps the Archbishop is so used to having two parallel polities living under one roof in his own church that he's unconsciously displacing it all onto the national political scene.

Well we're joined now by Melanie Phillips, author of 'Londonistan' and regular commentator for The Spectator magazine.

Melanie, Rowan Williams says he's been misunderstood, he wasn't advocating parallel legal systems. What do you think?

Melanie Phillips: Well I really don't understand why he says this, and I'm beginning to think that he doesn't even understand what he himself said. He's rearing back, I think, not surprisingly, because of the furore. The fact is that he was talking about supplementary jurisdictions (he used that phrase more than once) in relation to sharia and its relationship to English law and the role of the State. He explicitly said that he wanted British Muslims to be able to have the choice between two jurisdictions, between the English Common Law, the English legal system in civil law, and sharia law. He then went on to say, and I was at his lecture, I heard him answer questions straight afterwards in which he said, 'I didn't say I wanted a parallel system'. Now I don't know whether the man has a semantic understanding that passes our understanding, but in my view, a supplementary jurisdiction existing side by side with the majority legal structure, in which people are given the choice of one or the other, is in my book, parallel structures. So I think this is absolute nonsense. He may have convinced himself he didn't say what he said, but the fact is, he did. And he can't get away from it. In the incendiary radio interview which actually caused people to leap off their chairs well before he even gave his lecture- it was a pre-emptive interview in which he tried to control the agenda (which was a bit of an own goal)- he said in turns that he thought the idea of one law for all, one law for everybody, was a bit of a danger. Now the principle of one law for everybody, the principle of equality before the law, the principle that we all are bound by the same law, is absolutely fundamental to a democratic society. It's fundamental to a society. You cannot have a legal system within a legal system in our kind of liberal democratic society. And that's what people found so terribly shocking, and that he cannot get away from having said.

Stephen Crittenden: Is he right, though, Melanie, when he says that certain aspects of sharia are already recognised in Britain by way of the sharia councils, and also that there is similar space made for other religious minorities, like the Orthodox Jews with their Rabbinical courts?

Melanie Phillips: This is the source of the most tremendous confusion. Let's take the Jewish Rabbinical courts first. Yes, they do exist, and it's true, as you say, that sharia courts already exist. But they both exist very much under the law. Jewish Rabbinical courts exist absolutely explicitly under the English law. Their dealings are informal, the arbitration of disputes is informal, it takes place on a voluntary basis. When Jews in Britain are married or divorced, they have to be married or divorced according to English law. Jews recognise explicitly there can only be one law of the land which binds them. So all their rabbinical religious dealings are informal. Now the sharia courts want something more than that. Muslims want something more than that, and what Archbishop Williams was saying is something more than that. What he was suggesting was that sharia law should move from being a completely informal system, to being one in which people can choose which system of justice they're under. In other words, it has equal jurisdiction, a supplementary jurisdiction was the word he used, with the English law. That gives it equal status. That would mean I think that a polygamous marriage under sharia law would be recognised by the English State. Where he's absolutely correct is that we have had what I would call Islamisation by stealth. We've had a situation now for several years, in which the British State has turned a blind eye to the practice of polygamy among British Muslims. Worse still, it is giving welfare benefits to the multiple wives of British Muslims, thus de facto recognising polygamy. We also have, increasingly, sharia compliant mortgages, sharia financing, and a lot of other things in which the majority culture of Britain is being steadily Islamised. That is very different from allowing a minority religious faith to practice its faith, to form communities of faith and culture, which a liberal democratic society should do, we should certainly give religious minorities the space to do that. But that is very different from a religious minority expecting the majority law and polity of the country in which it's living to change to accommodate it.

Stephen Crittenden: I want to come to your book, 'Londonistan', I think we should pronounce it, is that right?

Melanie Phillips: That's absolutely right.

Stephen Crittenden: But first I just want to go back to the lecture that the Archbishop gave. It's clear when you read the lecture, well you were there, that he clearly thinks that Islam in the Middle East is pluralist, that it recognises dual identities: 'There is a recognition that our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or modes of belonging.' He talks as though all the boys from Hamas were graduates of the Cultural Studies Department at the University of East Anglia.

Melanie Phillips: Well this is another great confusion. Clearly there are liberal elements, liberal reformist elements in the world of Islam, which are trying to reform their religion, and which interpret sharia in a liberal way. I have no view on that, I'm not a Muslim, I couldn't possibly pronounce on that. But what is absolutely clear is that there are many others in the world of Islam who interpret sharia in a much more restrictive and draconian way, a totalitarian way. And what he doesn't seem to understand, the Archbishop, is that you can't have pick and mix sharia. If you introduce it, if you say that it is OK to have it, then you get the whole package, and you cannot control how it will be applied, and everywhere it has been applied in the world at the moment, the more authoritarian, draconian form holds sway. And we already have situations where we have a tremendous number of honour killings. Now honour killings, honour-based violence, sexual violence, gender violence against women, now that is not confined to Muslim communities, there are other ethnic minorities which go in for it, but Muslims practice it most certainly in Britain as far as our minorities are concerned. And that is rooted in the view of women as having half the value of men, which is rooted in Islam. Now that's the sort of thing we should be opposing, rather than institutionalising it. But you see the Archbishop has misunderstood something. Yes, we all have multiple -not "we all" - many of us have multiple identities, certainly all British minorities have multiple identities, but nevertheless, while those identities must be accommodated, and we should be tolerant of minorities, and as I said, allow them space to practice their faith and their culture, this has to be in the private voluntary sphere, not in the public sphere. There's all the difference when accommodating minorities as a pluralist society, and being a multicultural society, in which you say that the majority culture has no primacy over the minorities, and that is a recipe for social anarchy and the destruction of a society, and that's what the Archbishop is leading us towards.

Stephen Crittenden: Is it significant that he appears to be drawing on Tariq Ramadan for many of his ideas in this lecture, and I should tell you that Tariq is about to visit Australia.

Melanie Phillips: I think it's very significant that he draws on Tariq Ramadan. He seems to have fallen for Ramadan's spin that he is a true reformer. Ramadan is a subtle and sophisticated operator with a dubious record. He is banned from entering the United States of America and I think I'm right in saying, France, on the grounds that he has links with extremists. But in terms of what he himself has said and written, it is slippery stuff. For example, he has refused to outright condemn the stoning of adulterous women in Islam. The most he has brought himself to say is that there should be a moratorium. He has very, very slippery views and I think the Archbishop, it's all of a pattern, he looks for the people who give the appearance that we don't actually have to make difficult choices, but that everything can be basically smoothed over, and I think this is really dangerous stuff.

Stephen Crittenden: Let's turn to your book 'Londonistan' which isn't just about the Islamisation of Britain, but about the appeasement of Islamic demands for special treatment. Create that general picture for us.

Melanie Phillips: Well 'Londonistan' to me, well first of all, 'Londonistan' was a term of abuse, coined I think by the French Secret Service to describe the amazing situation that happened in the 1990s, in which Britain allowed itself to become the centre of the European jihad. It allowed a large number of Islamic radicals to set up shop in Britain and export the jihad throughout Europe, and to create large numbers of terrorists and extremists who were trained and recruited and indoctrinated in Britain. But my use of the word 'Londonistan' is a bit different. I think 'Londonistan' is a state of mind in which the population which is targeted by the Islamists comes to absorb and believe at least part of their rhetoric, at least part of their propaganda. And this is the situation we've come to in Britain, in which we've come to sort of tell ourselves that we're not up against what we're up against. We don't say to ourselves We're up against religious fanaticism, we say to ourselves, We're up against something which has its basis in a legitimate grievance, against us. And therefore we present the situation as if we are the people in the wrong, and we are the people who have to make amends, and thus we are immediately in a situation of appeasement, and our government and our ruling establishment is very frightened of the problem of Islamism, and has decided to take the path of least resistance and to appease it wherever it can.

Stephen Crittenden: You've in fact devoted a lot of attention to writing about how Britain's elites, the government, the education departments, the local councils, the BBC, seem remarkably unwilling to defend the idea of a common culture. What do you think is behind this?

Melanie Phillips: I think there are many things going on. First of all, there is a lot of ignorance. People do listen to people like Tariq Ramadan and they read people like Karen Armstrong, and they think that they understand therefore Islam, and they are reading and listening to people who for various different reasons - they have different agendas - are not telling the truth about Islam and Islamism. They're giving a very sanitised version, so a lot of our elites have fallen for this sanitised version, including in our security services.

Secondly, more importantly perhaps, there is a great reluctance to acknowledge that we're up against a religious war. And that is because a religious war is a terrifying thing to have to confront. Unlike other wars of conventional terrors, if I can put it like that, a religious war is something you can't get an easy handle on. You're dealing with something that's not rational, these people are not motivated by rational grievances, therefore there can be no accommodation with them. You're dealing with something which can go on indefinitely; you don't really know how to handle it; it's cultural, you can't get a handle on it because it's so diffuse in the population, in the minority population. And so it's easier to say, Well actually, this is about grievances, it's about discreet geopolitical grievances. It's about Iraq, it's about Palestine, it's about Kashmir and so on. These are ancillary things, they're certainly used as recruiting sergeants, but the thing they all have in common, and after all, you're in Australia, the people who are recruiting to al-Qa'eda in Malaysia and Indonesia are not galvanised by Palestine, they're galvanised by religion. The common denominator in all this is the belief that modernity has to be turned back, modernity run by the West, therefore the West has to be defeated. The Jews run the West therefore the Jews are to be defeated, and the mediaeval caliphate to be restored, and Islam to rule. That is the galvanising idea which all these different groups and these different agendas have in common. Now in Britain, we simply don't want to recognise that. So the reluctance to recognise it's a holy war, it's a jihad, that's the second thing.

And the third thing is that our elites in Britain are very, very, very frightened of the implications of having unknown numbers of British Muslims who might take to the streets in civil unrest, or worse, and terrorism, and then we would have fearful social and criminal violence in Britain, which they fear they can't handle. And so they are taking the path of least resistance. They are trying to damp it down by censoring the language, by paying excessive deference to the feelings of Muslims generally and so on. Now I certainly don't believe that one should be prejudiced, I certainly don't believe that one should be rude about Islam or Muslims, and I also believe that there are many, many Muslims in Britain who are genuinely horrified by all this, and who do want to live as ordinary Britons, and who are patriotic and loyal, and are horrified by the mart??? of sharia, and are horrified by the position that our government is taking in appeasing the radicals, because they say to me, The government, by its misguided approach is ensuring that my children, me as a British Muslim, my children may become radicalised. They are exposing, abandoning me to this threat. So truly moderate Muslims in Britain, as around the world, are being completely abandoned by this approach. It's an approach based on ignorance and on fear.

Stephen Crittenden: Final question: is it possible that these comments from Rowan Williams might begin to change the state of mind that you have described, given that there's been such a powerful public response?

Melanie Phillips: Well that is certainly possible. I have never seen such a response like this. I mean the anger, as soon as he made his remarks on the radio interview, which as I say, came several hours before -

Stephen Crittenden: Yes, it wasn't orchestrated was it, by the media?

Melanie Phillips: Absolutely not. People responded to what they heard him say in his own voice on the radio. That's what made the country really just fall off its collective armchair, and take to its computer keyboard and start writing these furious emails. And the reaction has swelled ever since.

Stephen Crittenden: Melanie Phillips, and just to show she's not making it up, listen to this grab from Britain's Skynews this week. British Islamist Anjem Choudary wasn't mincing words.

Anjem Choudary: Quite honestly I do believe that there is a clash of civilisations. There's a clash between a civilisation based upon God's law, who believe sovereignty and supremacy belong to God, who want to live under the sharia, who believe authority should be in the hands of Muslims, and of course people who believe that man should continue to rule according to his whims and desires, and this conflict is not going to end until one is victorious, and as Muslims, we believe that one day the whole world will be dominated by the sharia law.

Stephen Crittenden: Anjem Choudary.

As we've heard, approximately 40% of British Muslims say they want to live under sharia law.

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Tell us what you think

Excellent comments by Melanie. She's level headed, to the point and a pleasure to read. I hope her remarks would reach a wide audience.

Posted on 2008-03-07 13:04:30 GMT

Was that the Archbishop or a re incarnation of Neville Chamberlain talking ?

Posted on 2008-02-14 11:36:36 GMT

Thanks, very interesting, I'd like to see some followup with Bishop Willimas fleshing out exactly what he meant by his comments

Posted on 2008-02-14 09:30:03 GMT

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is utterly deceived to state that Sharia is not an alien and rival system. Sharia runs counter to Biblical Judeo-Christian beliefs and its aim is "World at One under Sharia"!Suggest that Rowan Williams will live himself a while under Sharia in Saoudi Arabia.

Posted by MEW on 2008-02-14 07:36:51 GMT

Bye England. It's been nice knowing you.

Posted by Daniel on 2008-02-14 05:45:42 GMT

It was marvellous to hear Melanie articulately analyse and dissect the appeasing double-talk by Arch of Canterbury and his apologists. Either they are ignorant, totally naive, or perhaps even worse, have they already sold out to the forces of evil who they see as the Islamic power of the future. If so, we need more than heaven to help us all!

Posted by MT on 2008-02-14 05:23:22 GMT