Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Archbishop clarifies what he said

One of the things that they teach you in press relations courses is to put out short press releases. Just a sentence or a couple of sentences. That way, the press, if they cover the story, will use what you have chosen to say in your press release. You have some control over what quotes are attributed to you. The same goes for media interviews: keep it brief.

The alternative extreme is to issue a hugely long press release and then some smart alec journalist finds a phrase in the 348th substantive sub-clause which he/she uses and hangs you with. Similarly, in a media interview, if you are not careful the journalist can just stand there and encourage you to waffle on for hours. The problem is that they then use the last two seconds you said, which turns out to be the very opposite of what you wanted them to use.

To be fair to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was actually invited to give a lecture as the first of a series called: "Islam in English Law". So he gave that lecture.

Because it was a lecture, it was very long. He summarised some of his points in a similarly very long interview with the World at One. In fact, the Archbishop has said very little, indeed nothing, in terms of concrete proposals, but because of his vast, sincere and thoughtful outpourings on the subject, he has given the media a target the size of the side of a bus to hit. They can't be bothered to read what he said. Don't be silly! This is the modern media we are talking about. They have deadlines to meet. They just see a quick summary of BBC News and then use their remarkable skills of precis to express it all in one brief headline: Late last night, the Archbishop's web site had a clarifying statement:

What did the Archbishop actually say?

Friday 08 February 2008

There has been a strong reaction in the media and elsewhere to the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks of yesterday on civil and religious law.

...The Archbishop made no proposals for sharia in either the lecture or the interview, and certainly did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law.
Instead, in the interview, rather than proposing a parallel system of law, he observed that "as a matter of fact certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law" . When the question was put to him that: "the application of sharia in certain circumstances - if we want to achieve this cohesion and take seriously peoples' religion - seems unavoidable?", he indicated his assent.

The Archbishop opened his lecture by noting importantly that the very term sharia is not only misunderstood, but is the focus of much fear and anxiety deriving from its 'primitivist' application in some contexts. As such he said that sharia is a method of law rather than a single complete and final system ready to be applied wholesale to every situation, and noted that there was room, even within Islamic states which apply sharia, for some level of 'dual identity', where the state is not in fact religiously homogenous.

In his lecture, the Archbishop sought carefully to explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural (including religiously plural) society and to see how such a unitary system might be able to accommodate religious claims. Behind this is the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences. In doing so the Archbishop was not suggesting the introduction of parallel legal jurisdictions, but exploring ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience.

He explained that his core aim was to: "to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state" and was using sharia as an example. These include:
- How when the law does not take seriously religious motivation, it fails to engage with the community in question and opens up real issues of power by the majority over the minority, with potentially harmful effects for community cohesion.- How the distinction between cultural practices and those arising from genuine religious belief might be managed. - How to deal with the possibility that a 'supplementary jurisdiction "could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women".

At the end of the lecture the Archbishop referred to a suggestion by a Jewish jurist that there might be room for 'overlapping jurisdictions' in which "individuals might choose in certain limited areas whether to seek justice under one system or another". This is what currently happens both within the Jewish arrangements and increasingly in current alternative dispute resolution and mediation practice.

He concludes his lecture with the comment:
"if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of 'deconstruction' of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment"

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