Oh dear. The AB of C has a history of accidentally generating lurid headlines. I recall when The Sunday Telegraph assured us that the Asian Tsunami had led him to doubt the existence of God when Dr Williams had said no such thing. This time, though, it seems he deserved the opprobrium being poured upon him. I’ve been trying to figure out what he said and what he meant before coming to a conclusion about the validity of his remarks.
Here in England, we have an ex-judicial system called binding arbitration. What happens is that two parties in dispute both agree to be bound by the decision of a mutually agreed expert. The point of the exercise is to save the money and time involved in taking a case to court. The Jewish community has, for a long time, used this system to allow their rabbis to act as arbitrators in inheritance and business disputes. In effect, Jews use religious courts. But as far as the law of the land is concerned, there is nothing special about agreeing to be bound by the decision of a rabbi or a local council reconciliation officer. That the rabbis use Jewish law is a private matter between them and the parties concerned. The only legal contract, as far as I can tell, is the initial agreement to be bound by whatever decision the expert in question reaches. In principle, I would think, if the expert suggests something loopy or illegal, you can still go to the courts to get the contract voided.
Now there is no reason that an Imam, applying the principles of Sharia law, should not act as the arbitrator in a dispute between Moslems who contractually agree to be bound by his decision (subject, as ever to reasonableness and legality). In fact, this already happens quite frequently and has no bearing on the universal validity of English law. But Dr Williams appeared to want to go further and enshrine certain Sharia principles in the secular law of the land. Now this idea, if he meant it, is the purest kind of lunacy. His Grace appears to be a wafer short of a monstrance. My initial thought was that he can’t mean this but having read his words I think he probably did. Clearly, in a secular society, a religious court can only hand down religious penalties. Their ultimate sanction can only be to ban you from mass or the local mosque. This seems something that no secularist could argue with.
There are also special tax rules because Islamic Banks can't charge interest. They have various ways around this but as our tax system is based on the idea that banks make money from charging interest, special tax provisions have been made for Islamic finance.
I fear Dr Williams, for whom I had high hopes, is now a busted flush. Perhaps his difficulties with the issue of homosexuality (an insolvable problem in the context of Anglicanism whose solution will lead to the dissolution or schism of that church) has left him demob happy. In retirement one has licence to speak ones mind a little more. He might consider that to be the best answer to his problems. York is ready and waiting for translation to Canterbury.
Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.