Rowan Williams, Sharia Law, and the End of the Liberal State: Take 2

The furor over Archbiship Rowan William’s lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice has been fanned to the point of hysteria by a reactionary media and government. Some have even called for him to resign. Williams clearly underestimated what sort of beast “public perception” can be.

A few follow-up reflections:

1. The Archbishop has offered a concise clarification of just what he did and did not say; whether the talking heads have read this is another question.

2. It is interesting to note the vehemence of the reaction to the Archbishop’s suggestion, particularly from Downing Street. The zealous opposition to anything that would compromise the supremacy of “British” law, along with an alarmist sense that this would be a threat to “Britishness,” exhibits its own kind of religious fervor which confirms a working hypothesis: viz., that in the late-modern liberal state, it is the state which is religion. Indeed, having spent this past week considering the shape of the Roman empire in early England, one finds an interesting parallel: the Emperor was happy to allow for all kinds of religious plurality so long as it didn’t interfere or compromise worship of Caesar. In an analogous way, the liberal state is happy to let many religions bloom so long as the state religion of the state is in no way challenged or compromised.

3. The core of Williams’ argument was not about Islam or sharia law. His concern was much broader: namely, the shape, place, and priority of confessional identities in the late modern nation-state. While Islam and sharia was an extended example, the argument he was making applied to all sorts of confessional communities. Indeed, in the lecture he also mentioned the example of Catholic adoption agencies being able to opt out of the state’s decision that same-sex couples could adopt. The sharia case obviously attracted the most attention, but then people end up focusing on the case or example rather than the argument.

4. What Williams’ is grappling with is hardly unique to him, or England. In fact, I am very eager to see the fruit of a fascinating project commissioned by the government of Quebec: the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, co-chaired by philosopher Charles Taylor. (Some might recall that a landmark book, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition was a “Report on Knowledge” that was also commissioned by the Quebec Government). The mandate of the commission is precisely to explore what sorts of practices of “accommodation” can be made in order to create a culture that is both pluralist and cohesive. The driving question is whether secularism (as a feigned a-religiosity) is the only way to secure cohesion (witness recent tensions about the place of the Muslim headscarf in Turkish universities). Given Taylor’s work, I suspect that the commission will look to creatively challenge such secularism. Rowan Williams lecture was hinting in the same direction, striking fear into the hearts of secularists and liberals everywhere.