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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thinking Anglicans: Behind the 'bonkers' headline

Note: Andrew Brown over at Thinking Anglicans brilliantly writes about the flak in the aftermath of the Archbishop of Canterbury's remark on Sharia Law.

You'll find other brilliant articles on this and many other subjects over at Thinking Anglicans by Paul Vallely, Monica Siddiqui, and Grace Davie.

I don't know about you, but I can't hardly WAIT for Lambeth!

AT ABOUT 12.55 p.m. last Thursday lunchtime, I was trying to persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to come on a radio programme about the nature of religious belief. I had got as far as Marie Papworth, the acting press secretary, and we had a long and friendly conversation.

So far as I could tell, she had no clue that her boss was ten minutes away from the biggest PR débâcle in the history of his office.

Lambeth Palace continued to ignore what was happening all through the afternoon. I know that, by four o’clock, someone there was warned by a friend in the business that there was a catastrophe under way. Other people had similar experiences until just before the lecture was actually delivered at seven.

By then, the damage had been done, of course. It was a commonplace of commentary afterwards that the row was over the Archbishop’s lecture. But it was not. The row was entirely set in motion by his interview on The World at One, and in particular his remark that sharia law seemed unavoidable in this country.

Quite a lot of the later backlash in favour of Dr Williams took the view that this remark was taken out of context and wilfully distorted. But there need have been no wilful distortion, and, to a very large extent, there was not. Of course it was taken out of context — if by context, you mean the Archbishop’s subsequent redefinition of “sharia” to mean something that almost no one else, Muslim or otherwise, understands by the term.

But what he said was faithfully transmitted, and, to anyone who works in the media, it is obvious why. All over the country, there are people who are paid to listen to The World at One with half an ear in case anything interesting or unexpected is said on it. “Archbishop Welcomes sharia” is about as interesting and unexpected as anyone could hope for. They will write stories about it immediately. Some will be scrupulous, and some will not, but all will give the impression that the Archbishop believes that some sharia jurisdiction should be recognised by British law. As far as I can work out, this is, in fact, what he believes.

So the first wave of criticism did not come from journalists who had misunderstood his lecture or been too idle to read it. It came from journalists who had read the transcript of his interview.

It was not pretty. The Sun’s “What a Burkha” headline was the most famous, and obvious, but it came a good 12 hours after Ruth Gledhill had posted on her Times blog an article headed “Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?”

The Daily Mail had no doubt. Stephen Glover’s column was headed “A batty old booby, but dangerous with it.” But this wasn’t a routine Rowan-bashing. Glover’s column is a symptom of a deeper disaster, in that he had clearly taken on board the arguments, and would normally be reasonably sympathetic towards any Archbishop of Canterbury. Not on Friday: “How can a reputedly highly intelligent man and self-proclaimed liberal hold such antediluvian opinions?

“Let us try to follow his batty logic. He starts from the position that we live in a ‘fragmented society’. That is sadly true, after four decades of multiculturalism.

“In Dr Williams’s view, one of the reasons for this fragmentation is that some Muslims do not relate to the British legal system — or, to put it in Rowan-speak, which is like wading though cold porridge with a lead weight attached to one’s feet: ‘What we don’t want is a stand-off where the law squares up to people’s religious consciences.’

“When Dr Williams says that the argument that ‘there’s one law for everybody . . . I think that’s a bit of a danger’, he is talking dangerous, reactionary nonsense. . .

“One secular law for everyone, evenly applied and without discrimination, is the mark of a fair society. And, of course, his prescriptions would have exactly the opposite effect to that which he says he wants.

“Far from increasing social cohesion, separate sharia courts would be resented by the non-Muslim majority, and they would encourage Muslims to entrench themselves further as a distinct social and cultural group, not only with their own religious values but also with their own legal means of enforcing those values. Sharia law, in fact, would be liable to deepen the kind of ‘hostility’ which Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, recently suggested Christians encounter in some Muslim areas.”

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, in The Independent, was more direct: “What he did on Thursday was to convince other Britons, white, black, and brown, that Muslims want not equality but exceptionalism and their own domains. Enlightened British Muslims quail. Friends like this churchman do us more harm than our many enemies. He passes round what he believes to be the benign libation of tolerance. It is laced with arsenic.

“He would not want his own girls and women, I am sure, to ‘choose’ to be governed by these laws he breezily endorses. And he is naïve to the point of folly if he imagines it is possible to pick and choose the bits that are relatively nice to the girls or ones that seem to dictate honourable financial transactions.

“Look around the Islamic world where sharia rules and, in every single country, these ordinances reduce our human value to less than half that is accorded a male; homosexuals are imprisoned or killed, children have no free voice or autonomy, authoritarianism rules and infantilises populations.”

Again, this is significant because it is one of his own natural allies rounding on him.

I do not want to be too critical of the press operation, or lack of it, at Lambeth Palace. There is nothing that any press officer can do to protect themselves against a principal who will say that he believes sharia law in Britain is unavoidable, except to stand behind him during interviews with a cosh ready to knock him unconscious as soon as he opens his mouth. That would at least provide an alternative story.

Short of that, Lambeth Palace did what it could, and made the full text of the lecture and the transcript of the interview available.

FROM THEN ON, the coverage split into three streams. There was the straightforward abuse, typified by The Sun’s (surely otiose) demand that its readers “Bash the Bishop”, with a helpful illustration of a pretty girl in her underwear.

This, with its demand that Dr Williams resign, merged into the coverage by people or papers who should have known better — the Telegraph, The Times, and the BBC, all of which concentrated on the non-story of whether the Archbishop should resign.

That was actually the most helpful PR of all, since it meant that his welcome by the overwhelming majority of the Synod would appear as a triumphant vindication. I am not sure it was meant helpfully.

Finally, there was the coverage by thoughtful and scrupulous journalists who had read and made sense of the Archbishop’s lecture. One of them, Deborah Orr, in The Independent, was even a little sympathetic: “I have to confess that it lifts my heart to imagine a legally and religiously recognised board of religious Muslim people, widely supported, and committed to taking a lead in plotting a modern yet Islamic attitude to the rights of women in Britain and around the world.

“It could be rather wonderful, and is quite a different proposition from the one we have been led to believe that Williams made.”

But every other thoughtful commentator disagreed with the Archbishop, from Matthew Parris in The Times to Simon Barrow in The Guardian and the leader writer of The Financial Times.

I do not know how much these hurt the Archbishop, but it is hard to imagine a greater humiliation than being patronised by his predecessor in two national newspapers on Sunday; Lord Carey finding the time in his busy retirement to write for both The Sunday Telegraph and the News of the World.

BY THE TIME that Dr Williams rose to speak on Monday, the outline of a defence was clear. He had been brutally and unfairly attacked for things he never said. What the press had done was an assault on the very possibility of nuanced discussion — and this is true. But it is much more important and just as true that he was brutally and fairly attacked for things that he did, in fact, say, and quite probably meant.

AT PRESENT, the decisions in Lambeth Palace about this sort of thing appear to be made rather in the fashion of decisions about where a bus should next stop. Any number of passengers may pull the string requesting the driver to halt at the next marked stop, but he can, if he will, ignore them all.

What is needed is something much more like the communication cord on a train. If that is pulled, the train stops, just like that. Of course, there is a penalty for improper use. But it saves accidents, and sometimes the driver is the last man to know when a catastrophe impends.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't decide whether to think of Lambeth as a tragic Comedy or a hilariously comedic Tragedy. And the whole world is, and will be, watching. Who would have thought we could out-do Rome in sheer lunacy? This whole scenario of the last few years (and continuing through this summer and beyond) is such an embarrassment. Anglicanism as we knew it a laughing stock. It's dying, and it needs to.

And yet, I truly believe that, through all this, good things will evolve in time... happening even now: in the midst of self-cannibalizing destruction, new things are being raised up.