Things can get ugly when high-powered academic distinctions spill out from the faculty common room onto the pavement—or more particularly, when nuanced, complex, and erudite theological treatises are trimmed to bits and soundbites digestible by the frantic pace of the 24-hour news cycle.
Pope Benedict XVI learned this lesson the hard way last year in the infamous “Regensburg” incident regarding claims about Islam. It seems that Archbishop Williams may have met his own Regensburg-loo, so to speak, when he suggested the “inevitable” and even desirable role of sharia law in the British legal system.
Response—both official and public—was swift and strident, suggesting that the Archbishop was opening a Pandora’s box that would unleash all sorts of decidedly un-British spectacles, from polygamous harems to public floggings and beheadings. And that was just the BBC coverage!
The blame for the “sharia row” cuts both ways, I think. Like the Pope’s Regensburg experience, I suspect that the Archbishop, like so many of us academics, failed to gauge public reception of his claim—and also failed to realize that the details of his argument would never make it to the telly or tabloids. While scholars will lament the lack of attention to the context of the claim and details of the argument, the news media and proverbial “man on the street” will retort that he doesn’t enjoy the sort of leisure that scholars have to wallow in such details. Fair enough.
On the other hand, we can’t expect to conduct public debate about such complex issues with the limited lexicon of soundbites and slogans. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves and our common good to at least give the argument a hearing—to slow down just long enough to attend to the context, nuance, and complexity of the claim, rather than contenting ourselves with the inflammatory headline splashed alongside the teaser photo of the page 3 girl of the day.
In this specific case, the Archbishop is grappling with some of the most intractable issues in contemporary politics, reconsidering nothing less than the very shape of citizenship in our age of globalization and pluralism. These are also perennial issues, with a tradition of reflection going back to St. Augustine’s classic treatise, The City of God.
The challenge is simply this: what are we to do when individuals, and whole communities, find their identity in an allegiance that in some significant way exceeds their allegiance to a particular nation-state? Or what are we to do when the nation-state demands that it trump all other allegiances?
The Archbishop recognizes the complexity of our identity-formation. As he put it, “our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging.” That’s just to say that for many, our identity and even our citizenship is hybrid. For many—and certainly not just Muslims--our sense of who we are and what really matters is not something that can be dictated by Westminster. This is particularly true for religious believers such as Jews, Christians, and Muslims who all hold a kind of dual citizenship. (Other cases include the situation of Mormons in the United States or Sikhs in Canada.) For instance, as St. Augustine put it, the Christian is simultaneously a citizen of the earthly city and a citizen of the City of God.
This becomes an issue, the Archbishop rightly notes, “when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.” It is this monopoly on the identity market that concerns the Archbishop. Such a monopoly trades variously under the banner of secularism and liberalism. In this respect (and to perhaps run a little too far with the metaphor), Williams’ argument calls for a kind of anti-trust law with respect to the state’s monopoly on our fundamental allegiances. He rightly appreciates that when the liberal state demands that it should trump all other allegiances, then it is demanding its own sort of religious devotion. But to the religious believer, to acquiesce to such demands—no matter how “secular” they claim to be—is nothing short of idolatry.
In contrast, I hear the Archbishop gesturing toward a post-liberal and post-secular account of the state which resists both monolithic hegemony and isolating tribalism. He is certainly not saying what the tabloids would lead us to believe. Perhaps he owes us a clearer, still digestible account; but we also owe it to ourselves to carefully consider his proposal. So be one of the few and read the entire speech here.