Lessons of the shari‘ah controversy in the UK

Developing Just Leadership

Iqbal Siddiqui

Safar 23, 1429 2008-03-01


by Iqbal Siddiqui (Perspectives, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 1, Safar, 1429)

Every month or two, a new controversy concerning Islam and Muslims erupts in the UK. Sometimes they concern terrorism or extremism, sometimes education or women, sometimes anti-semitism. Often they are based on wildly sensationalised reports of the statements of some Muslim or another, stoked up by the right-wing media to demonise the Muslim community as whole. Politicians are usually quick to jump in, to be seen to express the outrage of all right-thinking people, stoking the flames of Islamophobia. Protests that the controversies are based on statements being taken out of context or misrepresented are mockingly dismissed; isn’t that what everyone says when they are caught out? Such episodes are now so commonplace as to be barely worthy of discussion. Most Muslims have learned simply to keep their heads down and wait for the storms to blow over, accepting the resulting Islamophobia that they face as something they can do little about, given the mood in British society at this time.

Last month’s main controversy was unusual in a number of ways, however, not least that it was prompted not by some Muslim, but by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, Britain’s established church. In a speech at the Royal Courts of Justice (the centre of the judiciary) on “Islam and English Law”, he gave a carefully balanced and nuanced discussion of the conflicting loyalties religious minorities have in a secular society, and suggested that some elements of Muslim law would inevitably be followed by Muslims in the UK, as they already are, and that they should be given official recognition by the mainstream legal system. The resulting tabloid headlines of “Shariah in the UK”, and claims that he had proposed a parallel legal system by which Muslims would be exempt from British law and instead impose harsh punishments on women and anyone else they didn’t like, sparked outrage, with politicians leading condemnations of the Archbishop and calls for his resignation.

The resulting storm was typical in many regards, with liberal secularists and right-wing nationalists making common cause against Islam yet again. But there were differences too. For the anti-religious liberals, it was an opportunity to attack not only Islam but religions generally, and in particular to call for the disestablishment of the Church of England. For many within the Church, Williams was guilty of pandering to a rival religion, rather than offering leadership for all concerned with the role of religion in an aggressively secular society. For many in the media, more interested in controversy than principle, both lines of attack were equally welcome.

But, because the focus of the controversy was the Archbishop of Canterbury, a figure of some respect and standing, rather than some poor Muslim whom no-one really cares about, there was also a backlash. From some within the Church of England, and among some more thoughtful commentators, there was a recognition that Williams’ words had been distorted beyond recognition, and that the controversy owed more to media misrepresentations of his statements than anything he had actually said. There was even some criticism of politicians for jumping onto the bandwagon instead of providing moderating voices to counteract the hysteria.

Thanks to the fact that the target of the hysteria was a Christian leader rather than just another pesky Muslim, there was actually some reflection in the media pages of newspapers on the role that the media play in such controversies. Although the tabloid media will continue to portray Williams as a someone willing to suck up to the evil Muslims, at least some in the media recognised not only that he had a valid point, but that the response to it said more about the media and its role in society than about Williams, the Church of England or Islam.

So can we expect a more considered response next time there is controversy about something said by a Muslim? Unfortunately, that is probably too much to expect.

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