“Sharia-Lite”

19 February 2008

I am noticing that I ironically have been following English language news more closely than I ever did back home. Which I suppose speaks to the extent to which the act of reading/watching the news is foremost a matter of consumption (as opposed to fact accumulating or self-edification). Perhaps the New York Times is filling a gap that, say, Cinnamon Toast Crunch used to fill (and yes, I know that I can find imported cereals in specialty shops, but it’s expensive, and I prefer that my cereal not be better-traveled than myself).

Archbishop of CanterburyIn any case, there has been a spate (at least in the British press) of stories that deal, on some level, with the unhappy collisions of Islamic culture with European secularism. In one instance the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, recently brought upon himself all kinds of venom and vitriol when he remarked in a lecture to the Royal Courts of Justice on 7 February 2008:

My aim is only, as I have said, to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state, with a few thoughts about what might be entailed in crafting a just and constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom.

And later, he suggests that

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, [accommodation] seems unavoidable.

Of course, a cacophony of voices dissented, exclaiming that an extra-judicial judiciary would abrade the very core of the British justice system, a system of one supreme law to which all are equally subject, a system which is construed as a veritable cornerstone of democracy. That word “unavoidable” was bandied about, as if uttering that single word was a sufficient alternative to actually reading the lecture in its entirety. My favorite criticism (I can no longer find the article) is from an MP who suggested that perhaps the Archbishop would be better suited to an academic environment, where those “types of ideas” can be batted around, rather than as the spiritual leader of a major denomination. The university as a sort of sanitarium, maybe.

There is a temptation to see the row as a battle between xenophobic European nationalists and those committed to an enlightened multiculturalism. This is perhaps disingenuous; I have no doubt that many of those who found themselves upset by the archbishop’s comments are hardly xenophobic, let alone racist. And yet I do think that the archibishop’s words were largely paraded out of context (which he maybe should have foreseen). But in any case, I am less interested in trying to decide which side of the debate is right. Certainly, I think it would be interesting to see some serious research on just how destabilizing such an institution as Sharia would be. Perhaps that research would profit from a more incisive look at the singular multiculturalism (or perhaps a better word is porousness) of Islamic empires through history. But beyond this, I think the debate itself, regardless of which side is right, is more interesting for what it says about multiculturalism more broadly.

Beyond anxiety over the integrity of the British judiciary, and beyond fear of the dilution of British identity, I think the fear of the Sharia is founded upon the perception that it is fundamentally unsympathetic to minorities, particularly women. It is on some level savage. Crucially, it represents an alterity beyond that which the multiculturalism of the liberal nation is willing to accept. I think it illustrates (regardless of whether this characterization of the Sharia is accurate or not) the fact that the multicultural regime, far from being ultimately permissive and welcoming of cultural difference, is rather interested in that which is palatable to the regime itself. Moreover, this arrangement requires the performance of clean and essentially innocuous difference in ways that are intelligible to the multicultural society. Just how Muslim would one have to be in order to get to use the Sharia courts? As the archbishop has reiterated throughout the escalation, the Sharia would in no way contradict British common law, or absolve those who might be held guilty under it. As he explicitly notes in the original lecture:

If any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognized, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no ‘supplemental’ jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.

Lite BeerWhat is implied is that no part of the Sharia that could conceivable disenfranchise women will be entertained (and I really do think the gender angle is important; gender is the lens through which Islam is most vigorously criticized, which I think is evident in the disproportionately vociferous arguments over headscarves). For one thing, there is something questionable, if not darkly amusing, about a multiculturalism that insists on “Sharia-lite.” More interesting, however, is the sense I get that the multicultural, liberal society (ostensibly advocated by the Archbishop) does not merely tolerate other cultures, but rather expects those cultures to be performed in the public sphere in a way that is palatable to the sensibilities of the tolerant society.

Much of my thinking about this comes from one of the neatest anthropological studies I have ever read; a book called The Cunning of Recognition by Elizabeth Povinelli (who, naturally, did her PhD at the University of Chicago). Her work was with Australian aborigines who, in order to make claims on land in Australian courts, were forced to perform their culture (not literally, exactly, but subtly – here she has built upon a complex notion of linguistic anthropology to which I am not able to do justice here). Her case and the case of the Sharia are by no means homologous. For instance, the interaction between aborigines and the Australian government was in the context of particular economic issues (the claiming of lands as sacred, the claiming of services, etc.) that are less operative in the British case. But both situations, I think, illustrate the uneasy specter of radical alterity that lurks behind foreign cultures, and a multicultural system that, for all its good intentions, works in subtly coercive and troubling ways.

I have not tried to be uncharitable to the Archbishop, whom I commend for his candor, and with whom (if he is relegated to the cesspool of Academia) I would not hesitate to study. And I heartily agree with his contention that

A defense of an unqualified secular legal monopoly in terms of the need for a universalist doctrine of human right or dignity is to misunderstand the circumstances in which that doctrine emerged.

However, his proposal of “transformative accommodation” in which “both jurisdictional parties may be changed by their encounter over time” is perhaps infelicitous, as far as there is, at the end of the road, a subservience of Sharia to British statutory law. In this framework, Sharia would perhaps flavor british law, like the glaze on a ham. But it’s still, essentially, a ham. Or, to use a Jordanian analogy, if an idiot tourist wears a kuffiyeh, he is still just an idiot tourist (I hope later to write more about this; maybe as the dishonesty of cosmopolitanism. Stay tuned).

And that, it seems, is the problem I have with this enlightened multiculturalism. It founded upon tolerance [to a point] and an interest in [cosmetic] difference.