February 09, 2008

The archbishop, the law, and the press

Under the headline "Rowan Williams says Sharia law unavoidable" the Telegraph newspaper says:

The adoption of some aspects of Islamic Sharia law in Britain "seems unavoidable", the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

Did he say that? No, he didn't. Language Log has gone to the text of his lecture to see what he really said. But if you think Language Log is going to provide a brave defense of the hapless man, you're in for a disappointment.

Poor Dr Williams. All he wanted to do was give a lecture in a series on Islam in English Law at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, a lecture on theoretical aspects of the interaction of law and theology, with special reference to the role of sharia in Britain. No chance of that. The reaction to his remarks, as he should have predicted, has been a huge nationwide brouhaha, enormously damaging to his church.

The press fell on Dr Rowan like a pack of hounds yesterday. Indeed, I may be doing something of an injustice to hounds by saying that: The Sun, probably the trashiest paper in Britain, used the headline "WHAT A BURKA", punning on Arabic burqa "long face-concealing garment worn by some Muslim women" and British English berk "stupid person". But set aside the The Sun, which is noted for displaying a level of tastefulness that makes licking your balls in public seem refined. (According to The Sun, "In an explosive outburst Dr Rowan Williams, the country's top Anglican, said there should be one set of rules for Muslims — and another for everyone else." Unbelievable mendacity — unless you know about The Sun's standards, in which case it is believable mendacity.)

What actually happened is somewhat muddied by the fact that the Archbishop did an interview on the radio earlier on the same day when he was due to deliver his lecture in the evening (more on the radio interview below, at the end). But the key part of his long, dense, scholarly lecture (full text here) began about three-quarters of the way through, when the Archbishop provided a partial summing up of his general drift, in case (as seems all too likely) the minds of some of his audience might have drifted:

I have been arguing that a defence of an unqualified secular legal monopoly in terms of the need for a universalist doctrine of human right or dignity is to misunderstand the circumstances in which that doctrine emerged, and that the essential liberating (and religiously informed) vision it represents is not imperilled by a loosening of the monopolistic framework.

Got that clear and sharp in your mind? Probably not. It is a bit suboptimal syntactically. There is a pronoun ("it", before "represents") that is a bit hard to hook up with an antecedent, and there is a noun phrase ("a defence...") used as subject of a predicate with a subjectless infinitival clause as predicative complement ("is to misunderstand..."), which might have been better expressed if the the subject were an infinitival clause as well ("to defend... is to misunderstand..."). In a more radical syntactic recasting, he could have used two separate sentences. He's saying something like this: (1) Defending an unqualified secular legal monopoly on universalist human rights grounds betrays a misunderstanding of where human rights doctrines came from. (2) It would actually be no threat to human rights or dignity if the monopoly of secular law were loosened a little.

From there he went on from there to elaborate a bit more (and "elaborate" really does seem the right verb to use when talking about his baroque prose), remarking that

both jurisdictional stakeholders may need to examine the way they operate; a communal/religious nomos ... has to think through the risks of alienating its people by inflexible or over-restrictive applications of traditional law, and a universalist Enlightenment system has to weigh the possible consequences of ghettoising and effectively disenfranchising a minority, at real cost to overall social cohesion and creativity. ... [B]oth jurisdictional parties may be changed by their encounter over time, and we avoid the sterility of mutually exclusive monopolies.

So the Archbishop is saying that if religious and secular legal authorities interacted and considered their own roles and operations critically they could learn something from each other, which might help us avoid pointless clashes between legal authorities that behave like unyielding bitter rivals.

Finally he concedes that this entails a somewhat troubling overt recognition of the potential for competitive tussling between jurisdictional frameworks:

It is uncomfortably true that this introduces into our thinking about law what some would see as a 'market' element, a competition for loyalty... But if what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable.

I have boldfaced the part that arrives at the word "unavoidable", a word that most of the press reports quoted. This is the only place that word appears in the lecture. It is in an adjectival predicative complement to the verb seems (he never said that anything is unavoidable); and it is in a clause preceded by a conditional adjunct ("if what we want..."); and the subject is the anaphoric pronoun "it", which crucially needs an antecedent for its interpretation. He said, for a certain X and Y, "If we want X, then Y seems unavoidable." What is the X, and what is the Y?

Dr Williams' text is intensely complex and difficult on such points; I don't regard it as a model of clarity. But it is crucial to read enough of the context to see that the whole second half of the lecture expounds an idea due to a Jewish legal theorist, Ayelet Shachar, in what he describes as her "highly original and significant monograph", Multicultural Jurisdictions: Cultural Differences and Women's Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2001). The value for Y, the antecedent for the Archbishop's pronoun "it", seems in context to be Shachar's "scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that 'power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents'" (the Archbishop cites page 122 of Shachar's book at the point where he gives this characterization). He is following Shachar in envisaging voluntary recourse to quasi-religious tribunals to resolve delimited matters: he mentions marital matters, regulation of financial transactions, and mediation and conflict resolution.

And his X, in the if clause, seems to be a society where state and church are not at pointlessly at loggerheads by virtue of each regarding themselves as an unchallengeable sole source of justice. If we want a society of that sort, he is saying, then it seems to him that following Shachar's suggestion is the way we have to go.

Now, what Shachar is envisaging might not need much change to British law at all. The Beth Din system of tribunals for settling certain matters in the Jewish community is already operating in various parts of the country. And more generally, if two parties want to settle a matter out of court by having a religious or cultural authority figure make the necessary judgment, it is hard to see how the legal system of a free society could deny them that right. In the USA people go to paralegal mediators to work out divorce matters and to various TV programs for minor financial and family disputes. The accommodation necessary to allow that some people want to go to a rabbi or a mullah for decisions on such matters that they will agree to regard as binding is virtually no accommodation at all.

Dr Williams was merely musing about the beneficial effects such developments might have on legal and theological aspects of our culture. He was not saying that a thousand years of British law was going to be swept away and replaced by sharia in Muslim-dominated British cities, with councils of mullahs in the back streets of Leicester and Bradford determining sentences of stoning or flogging or cutting off of hands for criminal offenses that the population had elected to keep out of the hands of the secular legal system.

Well, the result of Dr Williams' learned and well-intended philosophical musings has been worldwide outcry, furious and almost universal condemnation in essentially all newspapers and hundreds of thousands of web pages (go to Google and see), angry denunciations from Muslims as well as Christians, and calls for his resignation.

So am I going to defend him against all this, on the grounds that he has been wronged (which he has been) by sensation-seeking journalists who cannot handle sentences beyond nine words in length? No. Not me. Sorry. I am a realist.

I could not defend Larry Summers either, in 2005. His ill-judged remarks at a closed conference would have been, if uttered by a professor of economics, just interesting speculations about possible explanations for under-representation of women in science. But coming from the President of Harvard they seemed like an inexcusably tactless controversial pronouncement about women's genetic unsuitedness to science, uttered by the chief executive of a university employing many women scientists. He should have known better. Your job in any such administrative position is not to control the facts and the arguments, and be right, but to control the appearances, predict the reactions, manage the effects.

I cannot defend Dr Williams either. He is in effect the chief executive of the Church of England, which is the state-established church of his country. As Archbishop of Canterbury he is not quite the counterpart of the Pope (Queen Elizabeth II is technically the supreme head of the church), but almost. The issue is not whether his remarks were sensible and reasonable (which they were), but about whether he can do the demanding job of holding this figurehead position, and manage the appearances and the politics, without causing his church to fall apart in social and political discord.

The cruel fact is that by provoking this huge row he has shown that he is unsuitable. (For the second time. Remember, he also took a position on homosexuality — one that I mostly agree with — that has caused a worldwide rift in Anglicanism as all the conservative African churches recoiled in horror. Bad move.) I hate to say it, but the people who say he lacks the leadership skills for his job are basically right.

Dr Williams is a gentle, learned, brilliant, scholarly man, and a bit of a public relations doofus. The calls for his resignation are not unjustified. He should be the holder of an endowed professorship in some suitable subject at some research-led university. He should not be a prominent church administrator, and certainly not the Archbishop of Canterbury. Someone duller, less original, less intelligent, and more political should be found for that job.

[Update: It has been pointed out to me that the text of the radio interview, on a BBC program called "The World At One", was a little closer to the newspapers sensational reports. The interviewer had clearly been reading the text of that evening's speech. Part of the interview went thus:

Interviewer: To begin with, you've given this vision of if as a nation Britain wants to achieve social cohesion, that challenge is how to accommodate those of religious faith in relation to the law; and your words are that the application of Sharia in certain circumstances if we want to achieve this cohesion and take seriously peoples' religion seems unavoidable?

Dr Williams: It seems unavoidable and indeed as a matter of fact certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law...

And so on. However, note again that the "it" is not the coming of sharia law to sweep away centuries of British heritage and replace our laws. Even in the interviewer's mouth, it's "the application of Sharia in certain circumstances if we want to achieve this cohesion and take seriously peoples' religion." That's not what the newspapers reported. They used phrases like "one law for Muslims and another for everybody else"!

The newspapers' behavior (that of The Sun particularly) was abominable. That of Dr Williams was merely a little out of touch with what the prevailing culture was likely to make of things. It's interesting that, according to Wikipedia (February 12, 2008), the Church Times columnist Andrew Brown once remarked that "The trouble with Rowan Williams is that he can never remember that he is Archbishop; the trouble with [his predecessor] George Carey was that he could never forget." It is the former that makes for the most trouble. My tip: if they make you an Archbishop, always remember that you're now an Archbishop.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 9, 2008 12:38 PM