Rowan Williams and the real tensions between Islam, Christianity and Western liberal secularism

Archbishop Rowan Williams certainly stirred the pot with his speech at the Temple Church, in which he discussed the possibility–indeed the desirability–of certain elements of sharia being recognized in British law. Some have seen this as evidence of Williams’ failure to stand up for Christian convictions. I think quite the opposite is true, and that Williams is doing something that needs doing in western liberal societies: standing up for the desirability, even the necessity of recognizing the ability of a religious community to police itself in certain areas. In particular he was referring to Islam because that was the subject of the lecture series to which he had been invited to participate in. But, as some commentators have noted, he might just as well have been talking about Christian minority groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church and their recent conflicts with the state over homosexual adoption.

I think Theo Hobson of the Tablet has a good understanding of what motivates the Archbishop, and he offers a good analysis of this in his reflection for The Tablet:

Above all, he refused to combine Anglo-Catholicism with a general liberal agenda. Indeed he revived the Anglo-Catholic suspicion of secular liberalism that dates back to Newman. The liberal state, in this view, offers itself as an alternative community of salvation; it tempts us into supposing that we can dispense with the Church, or at least water it down, and develop a more progressive form of Christianity. This leads to weak forms of Christianity that are unable to resist dangerous ideologies: most obviously, the liberal Protestants of Germany embraced Nazism. It is Williams’ anti-liberal ecclesiology that is the root cause of the present controversy. In a sense it’s not really about sharia law, or Islam: it’s about the relationship between a Catholic conception of the Church and liberalism.

For Williams, authentic Christianity occurs within a clearly defined social body, an “ethical community” as he has sometimes put it. Without this, Christian culture will be dispersed by the cold winds of secularism. There is a need for strong resistance to the various negative spirits of the age: consumerism, celebrity, hedonism and so on, and this resistance can only occur within an alternative social world, walled off from mainstream culture.

Only from within a religious subculture can secular modernity be seen for what it is: dehumanising. He has referred to secularism’s “unspoken violence”, and to modernity as “an atmosphere in which people become increasingly formless, cut off from what could give their lives … some kind of lasting intelligibility”. He sees secular liberalism as a quietly nihilistic force that robs human life of full significance, as a demonically subtle tyranny that looks and feels like freedom.

This theme was prominent in the Dimbleby Lecture that he gave almost exactly five years ago: it is perhaps the key to understanding his agenda last week. He argued that secular culture always serves material agendas (someone’s desire to sell you something, someone’s desire for your vote); it shuns comprehensive visions of human good. Religion addresses the whole human being, it puts all short-term concerns into perspective. A religious tradition “makes possible a real questioning of the immediate agenda of society, the choices that are defined and managed for you by the market”.

N.T. Wright has also written some insightful thoughts on these issues and published them on his new blog at the Newsweek site. I share part of them with you below:

the fundamental issue he was addressing is the relation between the law of the land and the religious conscience of the citizen. For 200 years it has been assumed that these operated in separate spheres: the law regulates my public life, faith or religion operate in private. This was always a dangerous half-truth, since many of the great world faiths, including Christianity itself, actually claim that all of life is included within religious obedience. As some of us used to be taught, if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all. In recent years various governments, including our own, have pushed the other way, to suggest that the secular state is itself master of all of life, including religious conviction. That’s why we’ve seen an airline worker sacked for wearing a cross, while in France the government has tried similarly to ban Muslim women from wearing their traditional head-covering. Because we haven’t had to address these issues before, our society has tended to slide round them by emphasizing words like ‘multiculturalism’, which often doesn’t actually mean that we celebrate our different cultures but rather that we subordinate them all to whatever the secular state wants. That is as much a problem for Catholic adoption agencies, as we saw last year, as it is for Muslims who want to follow their traditional teaching about (for instance) the prohibition of interest on loans while living within a society where the mortgage system is endemic. Rowan was going to the roots of these problems and coming up not only with fresh analysis but fresh solutions, particularly what he calls ‘interactive pluralism’. The question of how we live together as a civil and wise society while cherishing different faiths is a deep and serious one and can’t be pushed away just because people take fright at certain misunderstandings. His point was precisely that neither the secular state nor any particular religion can ‘monopolize’.

Third, Rowan was very clear in his lecture to rule out exactly those points which the screaming tabloids have assumed he was affirming. We all know the standard images of Sharia law – beatings, beheadings, oppression of women, etc. He distanced himself completely from all that, though you’d never know it from the media. He knows, just as well as do his critics, that Sharia is complex, that it varies from place to place, that it demands interpretation, and so on. His point was, rather, that there are some elements of Muslim law which can and should be accommodated within our legal structures. Ironically, Gordon Brown, who was quick to offer a knee-jerk rejection against the lecture, himself altered the law last year to enable devout Muslims to obtain mortgages. That’s the kind of thing Rowan was advocating in similar spheres.

While I agree with what both Hobson and Wright have said here, we shouldn’t allow our criticisms of the enlightenment and our distaste for the hysterical reactions to the Archbishop’s lecture to lessen our appreciation of the real, if sometimes poorly understood, concerns expressed. There are good reasons for western democracies to be concerned about the manner in which Muslims are welcomed and brought within the bounds of our common civil life. In this sense the Archbishop’s speech may well have been a gift if it has truly blown the lid off of a stifled debate people seem to have been fearful of.

During this conflict, I have seen some people compare fundamentalist Christianity, which sometimes maintains a reverence for the Bible apart from an understanding that the Word of God written has authority because it testifies to the Word of God in the Flesh, Jesus Christ with Islam with its reverence for the Qur’an as the Word of God in physical, written form. (As has been pointed out before, the parallel for the Qur’an in Christianity is not the Bible, but Jesus Christ.) While helpful from an ideological point of view, such comparisons only go so far when one is considering radical Islamists (which are the root cause of the negative reaction to Williams’ lecture). Have people over-reacted? Perhaps. Many certainly do not seem to have reacted in the most beneficial way–but there is time enough for that. I would argue, however, that while we have not yet turned the corner to helpful reactions, this is not in any sense an over-reaction.

Consider the state of Islam today. It is true that Archbishop Rowan has made relations with Islam a high priority, but I would submit that the Islamic scholars he is in dialogue with (such as at Al Azhar University) are no longer those who influence the worldview of many in the Muslim diaspora. They were once the centers of ideological and intellectual power, but that is no longer the case. Several years ago I watched a question and answer period on Book TV discussing Bernard Lewis’ books (I’m sorry, I cant remember whether it was From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East or What went wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response), during which time the question of Islamist radicalism came up. The questioner was confused as to what Dr. Lewis meant by traditional Islam. His response was that in his earlier books he was referring to Islamists understanding of themselves as “traditionalists” but that in reality they were the innovators, Islamic fundamentalists who claimed a spiritual lineage for legitimacy, but actually had none. The questioner then asked another question to the effect of “where did this go wrong?” To which Lewis replied that the problem started first with the defeat of the Hashemites by the Al Saud’s who founded Saudi Arabia and gained the influence over Muslims that only the custodians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina could have and that the problem was exacerbated when oil was discovered in the Arabian Penninsula, turning what would have been a social, political and religious backwater into a financial and spiritual powerhouse. (You can hear much of the same in Book TV’s in depth interview of Lewis, which is available online. I suggest it highly.)

Why is this true? It’s true because Muslims, like immigrant communities throughout history, have a desire to maintain their traditions in the midst of a new and largely alien culture. The fault-line they are navigating has been traveled by immigrant communities from many ethnic groups: German, Italian, Irish, Polish, Chinese, Hispanics, Greeks etc… each of these communities have established their own civic and educational institutions to help maintain their cultural identity–it would be foolish to expect anything less or different of Muslim immigrants. But of course, the establishment of such institutions cost money and must be financed somehow. In the case of the Muslim diaspora this financing has come from Saudi Arabia. The effects of this are important. In the past the centers of Islamic scholarship and culture had been Egypt (Cairo and Al Azhar as the prime example) and Turkey. But with shifting political and economic realities, the center has become Saudi Arabia. What are the ramifications of this? Lewis gave a memorable example by discussing the way religious education is approached in Germany. Germany has a period of the school day set aside for religious education, wherein the various faiths divide up and are instructed in the history and beliefs of their respective religions. Because many of the Muslim immigrants in Germany are of Turkish origin, Turkey offered to provide the same text books to German schools that are used in Turkish schools. However, because Germany wanted to ensure that instruction was carried out by the faith group and not by a government, they refused the Turkish offer. Instead the classes were taught by an independent group… a group funded by Saudi oil. In the aftermath of the September 11th attack, of the ethnic Turks arrested, none were raised in Turkey, all had been educated in the German educational system. This is simply one example of a number of reasons why immigrant Muslim communities in the west seem to be producing radicals, particularly in the second generation, it’s a matter of who pays the Imams and provides the Qur’ans and what brand of Islam–and indeed what version of Islamic law–they espouse.

It would be a mistake to assume that these issues which are causing so much conflict in the West are not also present in Islamic societies. Indeed, as Dr. Lewis notes, the primary Jihad of Wahabists is the Jihad against those Muslims who-in their view–are apostates. One need only look at the resurgence of Islamism in Turkey and the concern of those who are invested in their secular experiment, or at the conflict in Chechnya, where it wasn’t simply Muslim against Russian, but instead a three way conflict between Wahabist fighters vs. those who followed the indigenous Sufi-derived form of Islam (which is seen as corrupt and pagan influenced), or were secular vs. Russia. If we truly want to have a positive impact on the integration of and respect for Muslim communities in the west, we cannot simply assume that the more friendly and palatable forms of Islamic thought coming from places like Al Azhar or the more modern and secularized variety that is struggling to maintain itself in Turkey, will be the predominant forms in the West. If we hope to have any positive impact we must help them move back to the center of their communities from the periphery they have been pushed to, and see to it that theirs is the voice heard in the mosques and fellowships of the diaspora… otherwise talk of allowances for sharia are not only pointless, they become dangerous.

Of course, all of this leaves aside the very important question of whether or not Islam is able to exist in a pluralistic setting. That’s a question of another post, but the answer will most probably be found in secular paradigm of Turkey vs. the contention of Sayyid Qutb that Islam is itself a political philosophy. For myself, I’m not sure we can see the Turkish flirtation with western-style secularism as anything but an experiment–at the moment, Qutb seems to have had the right of it. In which case the allowance of Sharia for a minority could become the imposition of Sharia on others if and when that minority becomes dominant in an area–we can already see that happening in Northern Nigeria and other places in Africa where dominant Muslim communities that once handled their disputes locally and among themselves with sharia have been pushing for codification of Sharia in the constitutions of their northern states–imposing their beliefs on religious minorities who, until recently, also handled their disputes in their own local and often unofficial ways.

So there’s my take… here’re some books to think about:

2 thoughts on “Rowan Williams and the real tensions between Islam, Christianity and Western liberal secularism

  1. Since a tourist visit to Turkey in 1995, I’ve been very interested in learning about the culture and politics of the Middle East. I’m not very knowledgeable, but I’m learning. This post is an excellent overview of the way Muslim culture has developed in recent history.

    My only question (well, I have lots of questions, but this is the one I want to ask) is what do you mean by secularism in Turkey being “flirtation” – hasn’t Turkish public culture (as different from private culture) and politics long been founded on secularism? Do you mean in the wider scheme of history it will end up seeming as if a short flirtation?

    Excellent post!

  2. Kerry,

    I certainly don’t mean to question the commitment of Attaturk and his successors to the ideals of a secular state. I simply mean that, despite their success and continued struggles to maintain their way of life, it is unclear whether Islam can develop the institutions needed to support a division between the state and the faith. The very struggles Turkey has had to go through may be an indication of the incompatibility, or, on the other hand they may be the birth-pangs of a distinctively Muslim form of mosque-state separation (in the best understanding of that).

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