The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams’s recent lecture on Islam in English Law has attracted widespread comment and worldwide media exposure. Whilst Dr Williams did not face the execution of Archbishop Cramner, he was subjected to a virtual ‘lynch’ mob by the British media and political establishment. The man once described in the press as ‘thoughtful’ and ‘intellectual’ was branded ‘bonkers’ and a ‘traitor’. Beckett was assassinated, Williams merely character assassinated; ironically by many of those that told Muslims to calm down during the Danish cartoons saga. They demanded in no uncertain terms that Dr Williams resign his office, and did all but burn his effigy.
Some now look past the exaggeration and distortion, to what he actually said and have begun considering some of the underlying issues. We welcome this, for such issues require careful consideration and cool debate, not mass hysteria and rigid thinking. Though we disagree with much in the Archbishop’s speech, Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain does welcome the opportunity to tackle some of these wider issues. We have done so in a brief paper attached to the end of this letter.
There is a great need for an informed debate between the alternatives of Secular law and the Islamic Shariah. We don’t say this because we are seeking to establish Islamic law in Britain. We are not. Our goal has been, since the beginning, to establish such a state in the Muslim world where the beliefs of the populace are already in harmony with the political system we seek. Our desire to have a debate is no more than to ensure that people are given the maximum exposure to all arguments across the ideological spectrum, so that people can arrive informed at any point of view they choose to hold.
However, any such debate must be characterised by certain aspects. Firstly, it must be substantive, avoiding superficial stereotypes and caricatures on both sides. Secondly, it must examine both alternatives. If we are to hear condemnation of Islam’s policies on women and Islam’s penal code then let us at least examine the lamentable track record of secular liberal democracies on tackling crime and the discrimination of women, who are still paid 20% less than their male equivalents. If we are to hear condemnations made about Islam’s positions on capital punishment, the sanctity of life and violence let us also examine the record of secular liberal democracy on its plethora of wars, state sponsored torture and abortion on demand (now reaching over a hundred thousand people a year in the UK alone). Finally, to be real a debate it must be between people who hold differing ideological views, ensuring that people are challenged from the comfort of their own entrenched positions. A debate contained between secularists alone, regardless of whether they are Muslim or Non Muslim would be a pseudo-debate where people of like minds consider the alternative views, which can never provide the full clarity that is so critical to the discourse at hand.
We sincerely look forward to hearing from anyone who is open to such a debate, and to discuss terms of timing and platform. Similarly, we would love to hear from anyone who might be interested to be better informed about our views and hear – in public or in private - how we feel Muslims and Non Muslims might live side by side within the UK.
20th February 2008
Fault Lines within Secular States
The Archbishop of Canterbury was not the first to comment on the seeming inability within this liberal democracy to manage the passionate religious beliefs of millions of its citizens. A monopoly exists in the public sphere that increasingly excludes people of faith. It is no longer exclusively the far right in Europe who voice vitriolic hatred of public religious expression, most especially Islamic expression.
It seems increasingly clear that the historical compromise of confining religious views to the church or mosque is becoming out dated, irrelevant and untenable for a variety of reasons. Firstly more and more religious people are now questioning why their values alone must be confined to the private arena. The fact that some of history’s major social advancements have been made by people motivated by their religious beliefs seems to have been wiped from the collective memory of Europe: the provision of economic and political rights to women in 7th century Arabia, the abolition of slavery in the UK led by Wilberforce and the civil rights movement in the USA. All were driven by people with impeccable religious credentials. Secondly, many are attracted to religion in the west because of what they see as an emerging social malaise and spiritual void. For them modern society should aspire to be about more than GDP, rabid individualism and wars for oil. Lastly, secular Europe has had a poor record when it comes to its treatment of minorities generally; especially religious minorities. Whether the grotesque anti-Semitism of the 1930’s and 1940’s (or the much softer version that both predated and succeeded this), the oppression meted out to Catholics within Britain over the past four centuries (and indeed to protestants elsewhere in Europe) or more recently the French banning of the Hijab, this track record should remind everyone of the dictum that those who do not study history will be doomed to repeat it. The severe backlash against the Archbishop’s lecture, which saw some characterising him as “the most dangerous man in Britain”, fuels public anxiety about diversity in modern Britain in a way that only widens the divide between communities.
Many cited equality under the law as being paramount when explaining their opposition to the Archbishop‘s speech. All the main political parties as well as mainstream commentators repeated this as their main critique. On the face of it this seems a bedrock principle, but it is by no means universally applied in the United Kingdom. Different laws in several matters govern citizens of the United Kingdom living in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. Politicians of all parties are accelerating plans towards devolution claiming that they want to derogate more powers, laws and decision making to local populations. This opportunity to decide legislation at the local level, as any decentralised system will testify, will inevitably start to challenge a notion of everyone living under the same “British laws and British values” championed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
But regional devolution is not the only exception to this principle. MP’s enjoy a whole host of privileges from setting their own pay, receiving generous expenses, to being exempt from libel laws in the House of Commons. Non-domiciles currently enjoy a more favourable tax status than those who are residents of the UK. The Conservative party is on record of wanting to give married couples a more favourable status in law. The Police and Armed forces are banned from striking, a right given to every other worker. The Treasury has sought to attract billions of pounds of inward investment by changing laws to attract ‘Shariah compliant’ investors, raising the share price of many a high street bank (the lucrative side of Shariah law in Britain!) These few examples should dispel the notion that we have a one size fits all legal system within the UK, without even mentioning the supranational laws from Europe that run parallel to any parliamentary statue.
Whilst not seeking to build a case for some kind of parallel system in Britain for certain minorities, it is important to point out the huge inconsistencies in the arguments of those who accept all of the above, yet will not accommodate Muslims to the extent other minorities are, simply because of their prejudice against religion. There are many legal inconsistencies and exemptions that exist in Britain, but increasingly there seems no exemption or concession when it comes to providing any space for matters of religious conscience, as the recent closure of Catholic adoption agencies illustrates.
We in Hizb ut-Tahrir believe that for citizens to live under one law would also be fundamental within a future Caliphate - with one significant caveat. We believe Jews, Christians and other faiths should be given their own legal jurisdiction in matters that relate to personal aspects such as marriage or divorce. Unlike the majority of commentators who have dismissed the Archbishop‘s call for something similar to be applied to Britain for religious minorities, we do not believe allowing such exceptions will spell the end of civilisation as we know it.
What is Shariah?
The most significant part of the backlash against Dr Williams’ comments was the use of Shariah law as his main example to illustrate the need for secular societies to provide more space for religious canons. If he had used Buddhism as his example, the reaction might only have been confined to the BBC Parliament channel. But the image of Shariah has become so blackened that it has clearly become impossible to have any reasonable conversation without resorting to superficial stereotypes. To judge Shariah law by its penal code, as several commentators have mentioned, is like judging western civilisation by Guantanomo Bay, “water boarding” and the electric chair.
Shariah law encompasses many areas: politics, economics, social matters or personal matters. Shariah law is as much about helping the poor and healthcare as it is about punishing those who steal. It is about education and helping orphans and those who are mentally ill, as well as about deterring adultery.
Shariah law cannot be implemented in its entirety on an individual or community level. It requires a state, or the Caliphate; in today’s parlance one rooted in popular acceptance through transparent elections. But some matters of Shariah are no concern of the state – even within the Islamic system. These matters, such as personal ritual worship, morals and family matters, are the matters which might fall into the realm of what Muslims mean when they refer to Shariah in the UK. Other areas of Shariah are absolutely conditional upon the State or Islamic authority, and hence have no relevance to the debate going on in the UK. These include the criminal law and penal code. Discussing Shariah law in the abstract is therefore fraught with danger.
When Muslims begin to call for its implementation in the Muslim world, we often hear dire warnings from western capitals about the dangers of the re-emergence of such a state. Yet, the Caliphate has been the norm in the Muslim world. For 93% of its history the Muslim world has had a Caliphate. It is almost undisputed that the Caliphate in its heyday was at the forefront of scientific advancement and ‘community cohesion’ (thus contradicting the myth that religious based systems oppress other faiths). Carly Fiorini, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, graciously stated this in 2001 about Islamic civilisation. ‘Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds and ethnic origins. One of its languages became the universal language of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its writers created thousands of stories. Its poets wrote of love, when others before them were too steeped in fear to think of such things. When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive.’
Why not Shariah in the Muslim world?
The Archbishop was criticised on the assumption that he was advocating a parallel system of law contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of the British people, not based upon ‘British values’. Yet when it comes to what system of law should be implemented in the Muslim world this is exactly what the British and other western politicians do. They argue against a political and legal framework that carries popular support and based upon the values and heritage of the people. It is one thing to argue that you don’t want Shariah law in Britain, and quite another to say that the Muslim world can’t have it either.
In survey after survey, the overwhelming majority of Muslims support the implementation of such a law which they believe will deliver the requisite Islamic objectives of the protection of human life, the mind, human dignity, private property, religion, security and the state. A poll by the University of Maryland cited about two thirds of people across the Muslim world supporting the Caliphate.
What Foreign Secretary David Miliband blandly calls nation building is at best cultural imperialism and at worst malevolent ideological cleansing. Western governments will simply not countenance the establishment of any regime in the Muslim world that opposes the current secular-liberal-capitalist status quo. Today western armies sit in Afghanistan and Iraq similar to their imperial forefathers, busy creating laws, canons and constitutions for their new colonial clients while denying people what they want: the establishment of a law consistent with their fundamental beliefs. Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, summarised what many others had already said while visiting the US in 2006: "...there can be no negotiation about the re-creation of the Caliphate; there can be no negotiation about the imposition of Shariah Law…These values are fundamental to our civilisation and are simply not up for negotiation."It is little wonder that Muslims in Britain collectively shook their heads at the fanatical hysteria that followed Dr Williams’ comments that mildly raised a question about some limited accommodation for people of faith. Some could argue that in comparison, the response in the Muslim world at the attempt to impose western secular law by the barrel of a gun in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq has been positively restrained