We’ve encountered all this in the context of the race debate. Leading multicultural activists contend that a nation dedicated to “color blindness” and “individual rights” is oppressive to African Americans. Why? Because African Americans want to emphasize their blackness, and to be recognized and perhaps even rewarded for it. Hence programs like affirmative action and Black History Month and reparations and all the rest come to be seen as ways of affirming the distinctive value of blackness. To deny African Americans these forms of recognition and subsidy is perceived as a form of mistreatment, of compelling people to become American by giving up their blackness.
Williams’ argument follows precisely this trajectory. Muslims don’t just want to live in the West, they want to live in the West as Muslims. This requires preserving Muslim practices in Western society; otherwise, Muslims must give up their religious identity for national integration. This is the context for Williams’ claim that Muslims should not have to sacrifice cultural loyalty in order to be loyal to Britain.
So what is our woolly-headed archbishop suggesting: office breaks for Muslims to pray five times a day? Jihadist history month? Overlooking the occasional polygamous marriage in the Muslim community? Easy divorce for men but very restrictive divorce laws for women? No one really knows because Williams didn't really say.
When several people expressed shock at Williams' words and called for his resignation, Williams finally acknowledged that he had spoken "clumsily" and with a "misleading choice of words." Even so, he pointed out that British law does permit certain matters to be settled by Jewish religious courts, so there is precedent for his call to extend the principle to sharia law. Moreover, Williams added that while he did not favor creating "parallel jurisdictions" for sharia and secular courts, he thought that "additional choices" could be opened to Muslims.
Jewish courts in Britain have a very limited jurisdiction mainly on matters of religious practice. They function in conjunction with, and ultimately subordinate to, the national courts. The difference with sharia law could not be more stark, because in its classical form sharia law is quite comprehensive, covering both religious and secular issues.
If Williams wants to introduce so controversial a practice as Muslim holy law in Western society, he has the obligation of saying specifically how this would work, and how it would function with the laws that currently exist. But so far Williams has not said a word about what “additional choices” Muslims deserve over and above those that their legal status in Britain entitles them too. Williams’ Sphinx-like silence can be interpreted as thoughtfulness, but more likely it is evidence of one more cleric letting his mouth outrun his brain.
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