February 12, 2008


A Craven Canterbury Tale (Anne Applebaum, February 12, 2008, Washington Post)

I understand, of course, that sharia courts vary from country to country, that not every Muslim country stones adulterers and that some British Muslims volunteer to let unofficial sharia courts monitor their domestic disputes, which is not much different from choosing to work things out with the help of a marriage counselor. But the archbishop's speech actually touched on something far more fundamental: the question of whether all aspects of the British legal system necessarily apply to all the inhabitants of Britain.

This is no merely theoretical issue, since conflicts between sharia law and British law arise ever more frequently. One case before the British court of appeals concerns a man with learning disabilities who was "married" over the telephone to a woman in Bangladesh.

Though British law recognizes sharia weddings, just as it recognizes Jewish or Catholic weddings, this one, it has been argued, might be considered so "offensive to the conscience of the English court" that it cannot be recognized -- unless, of course, the fact that the marriage is legal under Bangladeshi sharia law is the most important consideration. Meanwhile, police in Wales are dealing with an epidemic of forced marriages, honor killings remain a perennial problem, and British law has already been altered to accommodate "sharia" mortgages. The archbishop is absolutely right in his belief that a universalist Enlightenment system -- one in which the legitimacy of the law derives from democratic procedures, not divine edicts, and in which the same rules apply to everyone living in the same society -- cannot easily accommodate all of these different practices.

Many explanations for the archbishop's statements have already been proffered: the weakness of the Church of England, the paganism of the British, the feebleness of Williams's intellect, the decline of the West. At base, though, his beliefs are merely an elaborate, intellectualized version of a commonly held, and deeply offensive, Western prejudice: Alone among all of the world's many religious groups, Muslims living in Western countries cannot be expected to conform to Western law -- or perhaps do not deserve to be treated as legal equals of their non-Muslim neighbors.

As Maurizio Viroli notes in Republicanism:
Classical republican theorists also stressed that the constraint that fair laws impose on an individual's choices is not a restriction of liberty but an essential element of political liberty itself. They also believed that restrictions imposed by the law on the actions of rulers as well as of ordinary citizens are the only valid shield against coercion on the part of any person or persons. Machiavelli forcefully expressed this belief in his Discourses on Livy (I.29), when he wrote that if there is even one citizen whom the magistrates fear and who has the power to break the law, then the entire city cannot be said to be free.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2008 6:53 AM

The Brits legitimize polygamy with welfare payments to Mohammad for the upkeeps of his numerous wives. They just need to pay him to keep his telephone-married wife and wives too. The more wives he marries, the more payments he gets. What's wrong with that?

Posted by: ic at February 12, 2008 10:28 AM

This story calls to mind that of Sir Charles Napier.

For those who do not know it, it is told at http://www.eppc.org/publications/pubID.2636/pub_detail.asp-

As a CG in India he suppressed suttee by affirming the old British custom of hanging widow-burners.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 12, 2008 4:59 PM