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A Tale of Two Archbishops

"Democracy … is a beautiful and fragile flower and we should support it, value it and protect it. It allows for dissent, for freedom of expression and for rights for all. We should not give in to claims that Islamic countries are morally, spiritually and culturally superior to other civilisations and great cultures … Muslim leaders often tell Christians and Jews that 'there is no compulsion in religion'. This sadly is only half true. If non-Muslims are not compelled to become Muslim, Muslims are not free to choose another faith. There is, we find, some compulsion, after all."

– George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, March 31, 2004.


"It seems unavoidable and indeed as a matter of fact certain provisions of Sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law … 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 read about Saudi Arabia, or whatever … 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 … An approach to law which simply said, 'There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said'. I think that's a bit of a danger."

– Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury, February 7, 2008.

In these excerpted statements from the heads, past and present, of the Church of England, we see encapsulated two approaches to democracy and the challenges posed to it so divergent that they look as though they emerged from different planets. Put plainly, Carey sees democracy as tender and in need of consolidation; Williams sees it as something rigid and in need of modification.

Williams might deny this formulation. After all, in his call for introducing sharia, he also stressed that he envisages a voluntary jurisdiction for Muslims freely wishing to avail themselves of it, not a coercive one without right of appeal. Yet British journalist Melanie Philips rightly points out that "his proposal would … mean that Britain would simply abandon its female Muslim citizens whose parlous position in respect of forced marriages, honour killings and all the other horrors that follow from their second-class religious status would be institutionalised by giving sharia law official recognition."

That this would prove to be the case is evident from Williams' assertion that sharia is a body of law that he cannot be reliably delineated. As it happens, however, its general provisions on family law are not in doubt. In short, whatever Williams might wish to envisage, a competing jurisdiction would indeed emerge. In these circumstances, equality under the law would become a thing of the past.

I belabor this point, not to demonstrate that Williams' inchoate ideas about democracy accommodating incompatible Islamic mores are eccentric but, on the contrary, to highlight how routine and reflective of British currents they have become.

Consider: in September 2005, the fast-food chain Burger King withdrew its ice-cream cones after the design on the lid of the dessert offended a Muslim in England's High Wycombe. The same month, London's Tate Gallery removed sculptor John Latham's work "God is Great," which included a Koran torn in half. If one doubts these to be exceptional cases in corporate and artistic self-regulation, try to imagine commerce and the arts being comparably deferential to Christian or Jewish sensitivities: no amount of (peaceful) protest ever saw the cancellation of any exhibition of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, which featured a crucifix submerged in urine.

The wearing of religious symbols on pendants and jewelry by people in all walks of life is unremarkable in Western societies. Yet, in October 2005, the U.K.'s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, banned the wearing of St George tie pins after observing prison officers wearing them at Wakefield jail, Yorkshire, apparently in support of a cancer charity, because they might be "misinterpreted," presumably by Muslim inmates. In October 2007, a Manchester airport boss was suspended for three days for hanging a crucifix on a staffroom wall when a Muslim colleague complained.


Conversely, when a porter at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital in Pendlebury, Salford, uncovered a crucifix that had been covered up by Muslims who had just concluded using the hospital's prayer room (used by members of all faiths) he was reportedly abused by some of the Muslims present, then suspended when they lodged a complaint.


It is difficult to think of any religion seriously considering the replacement of its time-honored symbols. Yet in 2006, Rev Phillip Chester, vicar of St Matthew's, put forward a motion within the Church of England to have the martial St George, inspiration of crusading knights, removed as England's patron saint in favor of St Alban, martyred by Romans on British soil far from the Middle East. Chester adduced dubious historical arguments to rationalize his proposal (the historical origins of both saints are in fact comparably murky) and notably, Williams voiced support for raising Alban's profile. The idea of substituting saints has also been proposed by the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, a long-standing pro-Arab lobby group.

The ambivalence over national and religious symbols has widened since that particular debate. There may be no other country in the world in which flying the national flag is actionable, yet, in 2006, the Blackpool city council threatened to rescind licenses from taxi drivers for flying Union Jacks during the World Cup soccer tournament. The name of one's country is surely welcome on banners, yet a council in East Northhamptonshire ordered a host to remove an England flag from her pub because it had "England" written on it.

The issue of Western freedoms colliding with Muslim sensitivities does not stop with commerce, art or religious symbols, but reaches further into British national life, including the education of British schoolchildren. Thus, while teaching school students about history's persecutions and crimes has been an expanding part of the curriculum in the West in recent decades, British schools were found by a government-funded study to be discarding history courses on the Holocaust in deference to their Muslim students learning a very different lesson in their homes and mosques (variously – denial, minimization, justification). Also, only last January, Becta, the government's educational technology agency, rejected a digital book version of the 'Three Little Pigs' story on the basis that "the use of pigs raises cultural issues" – more precisely, inspires anger among some Muslims.

Then there is the question as to how justice might come to be administered in the United Kingdom. Already this month, a British court decided to effectively approve bigamy by legalizing the payment of multiple spousal benefits to Muslim men with several wives. This itself is a step towards two jurisdictions.

Another very different example: four Bradford Muslims, eventually found guilty of possessing bomb making manuals, Islamist hate literature and videos of hostage beheadings in the Middle East, found a novel defense witness in the person of David Livingstone, a security analyst at London's Chatham House. Livingstone contended that the prosecution was wrong in itself and that acquittal was advisable, lest "a perceived sense of injustice" drive young Muslims to actually carry out the sort of massacres which the defendants were suspected of intending to perpetrate. Accordingly, in Livingstone's vision, the legal process is to be curtailed on account of the terrorism its workings might inspire in potentially violent people – an argument never made, for example, in respect of the Italian government prosecuting the Mafia, despite the human toll the latter exacted from conscientious judges and courts.

The specter of large-scale Islamist terrorism and lesser forms of violence in Britain has thus had its effect, the more so when the threat is understood to be homegrown and not easily weeded out. It seems hardly coincidental that all these developments followed the July 7, 2005 London bombings, the traumatic slaughter of 52 commuters and injury of 700 more carried out by British-born Muslim terrorists. Little wonder that a 2006 Spectator poll found nearly three-quarters of Britons to believe that the West is in a global war against Islamic terrorists who threaten our way of life and a majority so concerned about security as to favor the introduction of passenger profiling.

When one adds to this the British Foreign Office's advice to the government to abjure use of the phrase 'war on terror' (itself a euphemism for the war on Islamism) and Prime Minister Gordon Brown's directive to his ministers to discard the term 'Muslim' in connection with terrorism, the element of fear is patent.

Without doubt, fear of Muslim violence is only one factor underlying these manifestations of Britain's anomie. A country that makes the bicentenary of its pioneering abolition of slavery into a commemoration of its guilt for its practice rather than a celebration of its abolition or which marks the bicentenary of Nelson's victory over Napoleon at Trafalgar with a reenactment of "an early 19th century sea battle" between a "blue fleet" and a "red fleet" faces a crisis of cultural confidence of which fear is only partly the cause.

Yet, that reservation registered, the statistical data indicates that Britain has something to fear, for the level of British Muslim radicalization is indeed high. A 2006 British Channel 4 News survey concluded that just 44 percent of 18-to24-year-olds feel Britain is their country, 51 percent of them believe September 11 was an American-Israeli conspiracy, while 30 percent of British Muslims would like to live under sharia law and 28 percent would like Great Britain to become an Islamic state. A Pew Research Center 2006 survey found that 81 percent of British Muslims consider themselves Muslim first and British second – a higher percentage of support for the priority of Muslim identity over citizenship than that recorded anywhere other than Pakistan (87%). Another Pew survey the same year shows 56 per cent of British Muslims also believed that September 11 was not carried out by Muslims. And a Daily Telegraph 2007 poll showed 25% of British Muslims sympathized with the motives behind the 2005 London bombings while 32 percent believed that "Western Society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end."

Such data should be a wake-up and call and presumably it has been just that for many Britons. But the prevalent reaction, as the events of recent years show, has been to opt for the Williams model of modifying democracy, rather than the Carey model of consolidating democracy, to flee the Islamist challenge rather than confront it.

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