However, I do like to look beyond the headlines, this is supposedly an analytical blog and I wouldn't want to upset Matt Wardman so I've taken the time to listen to and read Williams' interview with the World at One, read the speech (PDF) he made at Temple and have a good think about it all. I'll summarise my thoughts here. This is going to be a long post and I'll touch on a number of problems but what is interesting is that I've actually become more, not less, angry. The fact is that Williams isn't just another tranzi trying to undermine the British nation. He is also an idiot who cynically substitutes an excess of terminology and a quiet voice for a coherent and consistent argument.
This is about as clear as Rowan Williams gets about what his proposal would actually entail:
"I’m simply saying that there are ways of looking at marital dispute for example within discussions that go on among some contemporary scholars which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them. In some cultural and religious settings they would seem more appropriate."
Now, in his speech he spends a lot of time talking about how the legal system should take more account of cultural and religious traditions. He also mentions that sharia is already practiced in the UK on a non-legal basis, with the Islamic Shari'a Council much in demand. Therefore, he clearly means for Sharia law to be given some kind of legal force. The extent of that force and at what stages people can opt out after they've opted in is left undetermined.
We are left to fill in the blanks, try to work out exactly what he wants to do and wonder what other issues Sharia is to be allowed to decide as well as his "example" of marital disputes. If his thinking is really so poorly developed that he has no answers to any of these questions then he shouldn't be trailing a speech with an interview on Radio 4. It looks like all he's trying to do is decontaminate the idea of Sharia in Britain which will make it far easier for all manner of illiberal bigots to push their own separatist schemes.
2. Missing the point on 'choice'
I can't think of any public intellectual I've encountered who has less respect for methodological individualism than Williams. He rarely gives more than momentary thought to individual people at all and leaps straight to communities. Even when he is supposedly thinking about how people will interact with this system he never really considers the pressures they have to live with.
This intellectual approach leads to some massive failures of analysis. One of Williams' fundamental objectives, coming out of the BBC interview, is to avoid people having to choose between their faith and their state:
"He says Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty"."
At the moment we don't give them that choice. Their first duty must be to the law or they will be put in prison. However, in another part of his interview we learn that giving them that choice is exactly what he means to do:
"It’s very important that you mention there the word ‘choice’; I think it would be quite wrong to say that we could ever licence so to speak a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general, so that a woman in such circumstances would have to know that she was not signing away for good and all;"
Complete contradiction. Williams has people choosing whether to call upon their Sharia or British rights.
Because he doesn't think in terms of individuals Williams shows a brutal lack of concern for what that choice would mean for them. Too many people will face a choice between the legal code sanctioned by their religion, family and community or British law. Williams' scheme will validate the idea that Sharia is the legitimate law for Muslims in Britain - that British law is and should be foreign if you subscribe to Islam. This will enable those who seek to use intimidation and social sanction to enforce Sharia on their own initiative. It will mean that more people have to choose between exercising their legitimate rights and being shunned by family, friends and community.
3. Never asking 'what happens next?'
Williams acknowledges that a crucial difference between even the most liberal Sharia law and Western post-Enlightenment law is the appeal to revealed knowledge:
"On the one hand, sharia depends for its legitimacy not on any human decision, not on votes or preferences, but on the conviction that it represents the mind of God; on the other, it is to some extent unfinished business so far as codified and precise provisions are concerned."
He wants to give the authority for interpreting Sharia and reconciling it with modern life to some kind of authority. Probably modelled around the Islamic Shari'a Council that he mentions. He then repeatedly assumes that Sharia will be okay because there is a possibled liberal interpretation. At no point does he discuss why we should expect that the liberal interpretation of Sharia will be the one that such a council puts in place and what we do if they choose a more authoritarian interpretation.
After all, it isn't just most Westerners that see the true face of Sharia as "what we read about Saudi Arabia or wherever". If those liberal voices Williams cites lose out in the debate among the Muslim community and we've accepted that Sharia is a legitimate source of laws what are we going to do about it? What legitimacy do we, not even Muslims, have to insist that any reading of Sharia is the 'wrong' one?
If an authoritarian reading of Sharia remains the dominant interpretation within Islam at large then recognising Sharia would almost certainly mean accepting that Sharia in Britain will steadily move towards that authoritarian norm. Williams may have a doctorate but his grasp of unintended consequences is rather lacking.
4. Smearing those who believe in equality before the law as extremists
This comes up time and time again during his speech. What he does is cite examples of where radical equality has caused problems (seventies China for example) and then draw absurd parallels between that and the present day. The idea that just because we want to have a single legal code we will not tolerate religion playing a part in public life is obviously a complete non sequitur.
His constant refrain of "and orthodox Jews" grates after a while. I don't know an awful lot about the orthodox Jewish courts but I don't think the analogy is very strong. My understanding is that the Jewish courts' opinions aren't recognised by the mainstream legal system but also the two communities are so different in size and consequence that sacrifices of principle in one case might be incomparably more troubling.
Williams' idea is a hideous one and expressed in terms that are insulting to those who believe in the highest Western principles. He is abusing his position in the British establishment to normalise an agenda deeply hostile to our most important values. He is not fit to be Archbishop of Canterbury.