Saturday, February 16, 2008


I am currently working on more material for part of OpenDemocracy (the excellent e-zine and discussion forum offering news and opinion articles from established academics and journalists covering current issues in world affairs) and others on the continuing ramifications of the Williams/Sharia debate. Well, eruption of opinion, more like. Disentangling the issues is a challenge in itself, because they were bundled in such a difficult way. One of the key ones is about religious conscience and exemptions in what the Archbishop (interestingly) acknowledged to be a "unitary secular system" of law making, something he did not contest overall - pace Anthony Andrew's conveniently simplistic conclusion that “Rowan Williams’ remarks were a strategic attack on secularism” (quoted from the National Secular Society site). Actually, they were both critical and supportive, in different respects, if you read them carefully.

Anyway, I did a piece for the OurKingdom debate on the future of the UK, The real purpose of the archbishop [13 February 08], which is in fact more about the wider purpose of the institution he now serves, the contestable definition of religious interest it is aligning itself with, and the way Rowan's otherwise subtle and interesting mind has been decisively sucked into this mindset, I fear. Meanwhile, on Guardian Comment-is-Free [also 13 Feb], I penned A question of conscience. I had actually originally called it 'The religion of exemptions', and I was not thrilled that they did a standfirst turning it into a competition of consciences between myself and the Archbishop, which was not the indended tenor at all.

My point, which I hope is clear from the piece itself, was to argue with a definition of conscience premised on the idea of incorporating certain narrow religious sensibilities within civil governance - by pointing out, first, that this is unhelpful and unnecessary in terms of what one might reasonably expect in terms of protection and provision from a liberal settlement (even if one's own moral formation is not circumscribed by the liberal state); and second, that a deep radical tradition within Christianity points in a very different direction. You do not have to be a monochrome secularist to be worried by the larger implications of what RW is saying, that's the whole point. An inclusive but not separatist social fabric can be resourced from a range of contributions, including religious ones. Likewise, those traditions are voluntarist ones which do not have to be dependent or built into that fabric, and may be damaged if they are; as I shall go on to argue in my next OurKingdom article, employing parts of the post-Christendom analysis.

Meanwhile, there have been a range of sympathetic responses to Dr Williams from two kinds of quarters. One is that broadly characterised by Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding at the University of Glasgow, writing in this week's Church Times (Why sharia is so misunderstood - subscription needed, unfortunately) and by the author of Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea, Tariq Modood, in Within the law (Guardian CIF). Tariq, Professor of Sociology at the University of Bristol, who I had the pleasure of meeting recently at an Oxford seminar where we were both speaking, is kind enough to describe my CIF article as a "powerful piece". But he goes on to say that "Williams' argument is not primarily about exemption but pluralistic integration and so depends ultimately on the idea of inclusion through respect for difference rather than toleration, exemption or separatism." I will suggest in due course that while that may be the Archbishop's aspiration, it is not, in fact, either where his institution is leaning or where he may be heading. The revealing word is primarily. But primarily for whom, the man or the machine?

From a very different angle, that of the Cambridge-originated 'Radical Orthodoxy' school of Christian theological thought, now housed at the University of Nottingham in the Centre of Theology and Philosophy, Philip Blond (fascinating guy - we talked a bit at Cumberland Lodge a couple of weeks back) and Adrian Pabst put a very different kind of case for and against RW in The International Herald Tribune - Integrating Islam into the West. What they say, which raises awkward issues of supercessionism, overlaps in certain respects with Andrew Goddard on Fulcrum, the broad evangelical thoughtspace - Islamic Law and the Anglican Communion: Is there a Common Vision? Interesting stuff which I think is in danger of collapsing into sophistry based on unclarity when it thinks it at its most profound. From a diametrically opposed angle, there is uber-Protestant Theo Hobson in Catholic weekly The Tablet, The quiet voice of modernity's enemy (see picture) and in his editorial this month for Third Way. I value and disagree with all of these, to some degree and in different ways, and they with me, no doubt. But this is the kind of argument that more mundane rhetorical butt-kicking doesn't really begin to grapple with, sadly.

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