Friday, February 15, 2008

Unholy row over sharia and multiculturalism

FIRST it was the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about how Muslim sharia law might have a place in the British legal system, now we have a report from the Royal United Services Institution(RUSI) telling us Britain has become a 'soft touch' for terrorists, and all because of pandering to multiculturalism.

What with record numbers of home repossessions, jittery banks and worrying inflation, I suspect some of our media will have turned with relief to anything that promises to divert middle class insecurity and fears away from the economy.

They have been trying to sustain the sharia controversy for a week, leaving many of us little the wiser about what recognising Muslim law entails (no I don't think Rowan Williams was advocating amputation of hands, though that might prove a vote winner in some areas); but aware now that some Anglicans feel it was a mistake to abandon the Crusades.

The 'soft touch' report - actually an article in the RUSI Journal - filled the front-page of the Daily Mail, as we might expect in a paper that has been campaigning against immigrants and asylum seekers just as it once did against refugees from Nazi Germany. Only then it thought we might need a strong man to take charge, and thought it had found one in Sir Oswald Mosley.

Now we are supposed to believe that young people turn to "extremism" and terrorism because they were not taught to salute the Union Jack and understand this is a Christian country. The "experts" who are latest to offer this diagnosis, complaining that authorities had not laid down the line to immigrant communities", turn out to be Gwyn Prins, a professor at the London School of Economics, and Lord Salisbury, a relic of the Tory imperialist family. I bet these two really know what gives in Birmingham and Bradford. Mind you, they say they have been talking with army officers and people from the intelligence services. I can imagine.

"The United Kingdom presents itself as a target, as a fragmenting, post-Christian society, increasingly divided about interpretations of its history, about its national aims, its values and in its political identity," say the authors.

Ah, history. The Salisburys have long played a distinguished part in it. A previous Marquess wanted to carry on war for the Suez canal. This one was involved in backing the Afghan mujahaddin, so you can't say he is prejudiced against Muslims. He could teach imperial history just by talking about his family. But what makes these upper-class twits think it is only "immigrant communities" that don't share their so-called values? Or that they have the right to brainwash the rest of us, or our kids?
Of course they love "the country" . They own it.

Incidentally, the LSE gives the RUSI article top spot on its website under the heading UK suffering crisis of confidence over security.

Talking of standing up to extremists, reminds me of the time the LSE authorities told some Iranian students they could not hold a cultural evening including readings from Salman Rushdie. The event was moved to Conway Hall, and passed without undue incident. I wondered whether the college was worried about its security, or about securing funding from Middle Eastern sources.

Perhaps we'll hear from the RUSI experts what they think of the report this week that investigation of the British Aerospace bribery and Saudi arms deals was stopped after the Saudis warned of terror on London streets when they withdrew intelligence co-operation. But then, an extremist regime becomes a "moderate" regime when it opens its chequebook for arms deals.

Getting back to the Archbishop, being neither an Anglican nor a Muslim, nor a believer of any kind, I could not get worked up enough to follow the controversy. So far as I can see what Rowan Williams advocated was not that sharia be introduced as British law, but that people be given the option of using sharia law to settle civil and marital disputes. Some already turn to Muslim religious counsel for marital issues. Channel Four looked at this earlier this month, before Rowan Williams had spoken.

I can understand many people, particularly from Muslim backgrounds, being alarmed at the thought of religious courts being recognised and given more authority. I can remember Jewish women demonstrating over the issue of rabbinical courts' reluctance to free them from agunot, chains binding them to an unhappy or broken marriage. Without a get from their husbands they could not divorce, or remarry in an Orthodox synagogue. There was even a famous case in Israel when some women whose husbands had gone down with a stricken submarine could not obtain release, as widows, and it went on for years. I'm not sure if Muslim courts are likely to be worse or better. (There are four or five different schools of sharia anyway). I'm not a Muslim woman.

Under the 1996 Arbitration Act, rabbinical courts are recognised in Britain, to settle civil disputes, providing both parties agree. Some say it is cheaper and more discreet than civil courts. But that part about both sides agreeing, which might suit Stamford Hill businessmen, may be less reassuring in family cases. It is up to couples to decide whether they want or need a religious decision on their marriage and divorces, just as it is up to a woman to decide if she wears a scarf. But does that take account of pressure from family, parents, communities? Giving religious authority legal recognition may mean removing safeguards and reinforcing oppression.

Not that such worries are what concerns some of those who have been shouting for Williams' head, or at least his job. Some are the kind of Christians who think Jesus Christ was an Englishman and are all for religious oppression providing they do the oppressing. They regard the archbishop's ideas as but the latest reprehensible concession to liberalism.

I'm grateful to Richard Bartholomew's excellent and informative blog 'Bartholomew's Notes on Religion ' for drawing attention to another voice raised in execration of the archbishop. That of Irene Lancaster who says: "Of course I've read the original speech, plus the amended material…I don't care how erudite, numerous or conciliatory the audience was. To me it sounds like a Hitler rally, in which Hitler also received standing ovations from the learned academics, lawyers and clerics of the day…"
Really? I've seen old clips of Hitler ranting to well-drilled Nuremburg rallies, and somehow old beardie from Canterbury diffidently voicing his thoughts on the BBC or explaining them to a synod does not quite fill the bill.
Irene Lancaster: Williams Speech "Like a Hitler Rally"

We've met Dr.Lancaster before, mind. She it was who denounced veteran Jewish community figure Henry Guterman as "unfit to hold any position", after he had shared a platform with Ken Livingstone at a Unite Against Fascism conference on stopping the BNP, and denied that Livingstone was an antisemite. Guterman, who came to this country as a young refugee from Germany, after witnessing Kristallnacht, knew a bit more than Irene Lancaster about Nazi rallies and what an antisemite looks like.

There was a further shock for the anti-Williams crusaders this week on the front-page of the Jewish Chronicle. Top rabbi backs Williams on sharia, it said.
Not Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sachs, who is apparently hedging his bets on the issue, but Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein, head of the Federation Beth Din, which is a court. (Beth Din means house of judgement, and a Dayan is literally a judge). Inside the paper is some balanced discussion. Professor Geoffrey Alderman, who besides his academic career has represented Orthodox federation synagogues on the Board of Deputies, argues that Jewish courts function in London and Manchester, forming "a legal 'state within a state' -with no harm done". But Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips will have none of it. "The state does not recognise the authority of Jewish law. Why should it recognise Muslim law?"

How much 'Mad Mel' actually knows about either tradition, I wonder. But we can count on her to oppose any concessions to multiculturalism, or Muslims, and to be 'holier than the Pope' with regard to Anglicanism. Whereas for my part, opposed to religious authority in general, I look forward to the day when the opinions of an archbishop, as of a chief rabbi or imam, will be of slight interest to anyone not of what should be their dwindling flocks. And the same goes for the imperial museum pieces in the Royal United Services Institute.

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At 7:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lancaster is undoubtedly the most gruesome canting humbug, ubiquitous in right wing blogs where her dissembling is greeted with fawning sycophancy. The Israel lobby has long ago given up any pretence of actually arguing its case in any forum that does not constitute an echo chamber but just tries to shriek down opposition with the vilest allegations.

Oh, and the woman's sense of her own importance is jaw droppingly immense.

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