How to paint a political target on your chest

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has unsurprisingly attracted media attention overnight for suggesting that sharia law should be introduced into the United Kingdom. The vast majority of commentators have condemned the idea, and not without reason given the barbaric practices associated with implementations of the doctrine in some Islamic nations. Certainly the temptation to immediately think “sharia law = bad” is overwhelming in the modern Western political climate, and I am quite sure that the phrase is regarded as anathema to the major parties in both the United Kingdom and Australia.

Having said all this, some of what Williams argues would seem to make a great deal of sense. In practical terms, it is certainly the case that customs associated with sharia law are being actively practiced by Muslims in both the United Kingdom and Australia. In the majority of cases, one would expect that these customs are only being adhered to in circumstances where they do not contradict the legal system of the country in question, although it’s almost certain that this is not always the case. Williams is obviously not arguing draconian measures to be created in the legal system to keep the Muslim community happy; quite to the contrary, he is arguing for plurality:

“If what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of diverse and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable,” he said.

The first retort of the “patriot” when somewhat controversial questions like this are raised is that national loyalty comes first, and that if there are Muslims or anyone else in the country who don’t like it, they should go live some place else. Of course there is a religious element to this sort of nationalism – “foreign” religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are regarded as alien to the national bodypolitik. In Australia in particular, as was revealed last year during the course of the citizenship test debate, it would seem that some people think we are a nation in the “judeo-christian” tradition (whatever that is), whereas others believe the nation to be more secular. One would have to think, given modern patterns of human movement and the capacity for countries to absorb people of different belief systems, that secularism is the long-term reality for most civilised nations of the world.

If we accept that this is the case, if there is some means for making the choice between cultural and state loyalty for people slightly easier (without fundamentally undermining the existing legal systems of the nations in question), doesn’t this at least represent a topic worthy of discussion and debate?