Greenway: When faith and culture collideIt has been 40 years since
Britain”s Enoch Powell made his famous “rivers of blood” speech warning about the social effects of immigration upon his land. Despite some serious riots along the way, Powell”s warning never came to pass. But today the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, is warning of “the emergence of a kind of cold war in some parts of the country where very separate communities live side by side … with poor communications across racial lines.”
The multiculturalism in which Britain put its faith is under attack as having failed.
Britons are wondering if they have gone too far to accommodate minorities, and if society should be instilling Britishness instead? The focus, of course, is on British Muslims, and some Britons are asking, is this a community that British traditions can absorb?
So when the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested earlier this year a public space for Shariah, or Muslim law, there were calls for his resignation.
In fact, Williams was not suggesting that British common law be replaced. He only questioned whether the West could avoid the “stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty.” Can there be room for “supplementary jurisdictions,” in which people can “choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters?” he asked.
Williams pointed out that this was a problem not just for Muslims, but for Orthodox Jews who, on certain issues, may prefer to defer to rabbinical rules. He quoted the Jewish legal theorist, Ayelet Schachar, as wanting to move away from a single jurisdiction over “socially defining roles and relations.” The trick, however, is to not fall into the trap of “uncritical endorsement of communal legal structures,” he said. You can”t murder your sister in Britain, for example, just because of your sense of family honor. But can society avoid the ultimatum: “Either your culture or your rights?”
Can religion have a place in the legal systems of the West? Unlike the United States or France, England has an established, state religion that Williams heads. Yet the country grows ever more secular. The exception is the Muslim minority, segments of which are growing ever more religious. Williams said he sought to “tease out” the broader issues concerning the “rights of religious groups within a secular state.”
Brandeis University”s Jytte Klausen, in her book “The Islamic Challenge,” provided the perfect example of this quandary. A German court ruled in 1995 that while Jews could be exempted from the strict laws governing animal slaughter, Muslims could not.
The rules governing Kosher slaughter and Muslim customs are similar. The Jewish authorities, when consulted by the court, were adamant that their religion absolutely required ritual slaughter. When it came to the Muslims, however, the court consulted Islamic authorities in Cairo, who told them that, in an emergency, Muslims could do without ritual slaughter.
Muslims in Germany were furious. “We are not lost in the desert, there is no emergency here,” a German Muslim told me as he gestured at the well-stocked Berlin café in which we were sitting. “If Jews can be allowed their religious customs, why not us?”
While Jews, after centuries of struggle and the Holocaust, have been successful in carving out a religious space within the legal codes of Europe, Muslims have not caught up. More than one European Muslim told me that they could learn from the Jews about what Williams calls “overlapping affiliations (that) work for the common good.”
“What most people think they know of Shariah is that it is repressive toward women, and wedded to archaic and brutal physical punishment,” Williams said. He quoted a Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, as saying that in the West, “the idea of Shariah calls up the darkest images of Islam.” But Williams hopes there can be compromises and ways to accommodate a “constructive relationship” between Islamic law and the statutory laws of the United Kingdom without compromising traditional British freedoms.
“The great protest of the Enlightenment,” he said, “was against authority that appealed only to one tradition.” And that could apply to both Islam and Christendom.