The furore in Britain over the Archbishop of Canterbury's cautious references to the sharia and law in his lecture in London on 7 February 2008 has been extensively discussed by a number of openDemocracy writers and from a variety of perspectives: among them Tina Beattie, Fred Halliday, Theo Hobson, Tariq Modood and Roger Scruton, as well as Simon Barrow in OurKingdom.
Wednesday 13 February 2008 was a day heavy with both historical symbolism and political tension in Australia. That day, the Australian government apologised to "the stolen generations", those children of Aboriginal descent who were removed from their parents (usually their Aboriginal mothers) to be raised in white foster-homes and institutions administered by governments and Christian churches - a practice that lasted from before the first world war to the early 1970s.
An intense public debate and media controversy was triggered in Britain after a lecture delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury - the spiritual head of the Church of England - on 7 February 2008. The speech - entitled " Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective"- raised important questions of law, state, faith and citizenship in a modern, plural society; and its bitter, polarising aftermath equally highlights the issue of what kind of civic discourse about these questions is necessary if they are to be properly addressed. This essay responds to the debate and controversy by viewing them in the perspective of "multicultural citizenship",a concept which allows for nuanced understanding of the inter-relationship of"secular" and "religious" notions in civic life.
The response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture on 7 February 2008, " Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective", has included discussion of the character of the "sharia" that formed an important part of the address. Fred Halliday's contribution on openDemocracy focuses on this question as part of a general questioning of the integrity of such terms as "Islamic law" and "Islamic finance" (see "Islam,law and finance: the elusive divine", 12 February2008). His is an excellent contribution to a developing discussion; but thereare a couple of points to be added that highlight what is really at stake inthe controversy following Rowan Williams's intervention.
The fuss surrounding the Archbishop of Canterbury and sharia law, sparked by his lecture at London’s Royal Courts of Justice on 7 February 2008, is not easy to analyse. This is partly because the angry media reaction is also a component of the story. It is also partly because the theological vision that underlies Rowan Williams’s reflections needs to be considered.
On 7 February 2008, Rowan Williams - the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the Anglican church - delivered the foundation lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. His address, entitled "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective" inaugurated a series of talks on Islam and English law.
The Economist recently published a colour supplement titled "In God's Name: A Special Report on Religion and Public Life" (3 November 2007). The accompanying leading article included a rueful admission: "The Economist was so confident of the Almighty's demise that we published His obituary in our millennium issue." There is an almost palpable sense of discomfort at a leading international journal finding itself confronted with the unexpected resurgence of religion as a newsworthy topic which merits serious debate.
Islam's encounter with the west is as old as Islam itself. The first Muslim minorities living under western Christian domination date back to the 11th century (in Sicily). Yet the second half of the 20th century witnessed a distinctively new phenomenon: the massive, voluntary settlement in western societies of millions of Muslims coming from Muslim societies across the middle east, the Indian subcontinent, Turkey, Africa, and southeast Asia. The west has also witnessed the development of an indigenous trend of religious conversion (as in the case of the Nation of Islam).
If the unprecedented global protests over insulting depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in a book, newspaper or a papal speech tell us anything, it is that Muslims around the world can act in concert without following a leader or sharing an ideology. While such demonstrations might possess a local politics, in other words, they are shaped by global movements that lack traditional political meaning, not least by sidelining leaders and institutions for popular action in the name of a worldwide Muslim community as seen on television. The same holds true for Muslim support of global militancy, whose televised icons are capable of attracting a following without the help of local institutions or leaders.
In early 2006, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten's publication of a series of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed a few months earlier escalated into an international row involving demonstrations and protests across the Muslim world. Now the Swedish artist Lars Vilks has stirred up comparable - if so far less destructive - reactions with a cartoon drawing of a so-called rondellhund ("roundabout dog") with the head of the most venerated figure in the Islamic religion.
Birgitta Steene is professor emerita in cinema studies and Scandinavian literature at the University of Washington and has also been a professor in the film department at Stockholm University. She is the recipient of an honoris causa doctorate from her alma mater, the University of Uppsala.
Birgitta Steene is the author of Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide (Amsterdam University Press, 2005) as well as numerous other books and articles on Scandinavian drama and film
Also by Birgitta Steene on openDemocracy:
"Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: an epoch's end" (6 August 2007)
"With steps such as this, your majesty's wisdom and vision would take Egypt to lead modernity in the east", said Nubar Pasha, a prominent civil servant (later Egypt's first prime minister) whose family had settled in Egypt in the early 19th century. The addressee of the remark was the Khedive of Egypt, and the occasion was the inauguration of the Cairo opera house in 1869 - only the fourth in the world, and the first anywhere in the middle east, Africa and Asia.
Nubar Pasha, the obsequiousness to a ruler aside, was not exaggerating. The era was one of great social progress in Egypt, marked by the establishment of new educational institutions, factories, publishers that translated foreign books, and cultural bodies. Nubar was among those who pioneered this wave of modernity; part of the small, region-wide army of visionaries, business and community leaders and officials who had helped the ruling Mohammed Ali family in Egypt, the feudal masters of Mount Lebanon and the Beys of Tunisia (among other leaders of Arab states) to take their countries forward. Nubar Pasha, like many of those luminaries, was Christian (in his case of Armenian origin).
Scientists often complain about the rising influence of mystical and religious beliefs, a trend they regard as detrimental to scientific inquiry. Since at least the mid-1970s, a common feature of science's public profile is for a leading practitioner to denounce beliefs in (for example) astrology or "alternative" or "parallel" medicine, and lament the public's ignorance of true science.
The most high-profile example (though far from the only one) is Richard Dawkins, whose prolific and relentless pursuit of unreason has won him both acclaim and execration. But this very polarisation of response indicates a problem in the way that the issue of science and mysticism is presented and discussed in the public arena. The media's preference for sound and fury over calm, logical, evidence-based argument, and the temptation even among serious intellectuals to allow provocation and polemic to lead their case, means that the question of whether scientists' own indulgence in mysticism can undermine the integrity of their profession goes undiscussed.
The zawiya of Sidi Marouf is discreetly set back from the road behind a screen of trees, and its high exterior walls present a sober and unadorned façade (a zawiya is a Sufi centre combining a mosque with teaching institution, students' and pilgrims' accommodation, and charitable activity; often - though not in this case - it is centred on the tomb of a founding saint.) Once inside, however, the place is spectacular in every sense of the word. The stucco, tile and calligraphy of the mosque's interior recall the famous religious schools of Fez, and the light, filtered through high-set coloured glass windows, has both the brilliance and the serenity suited to a place devoted to the study and celebration of the mystical elements of Islam.
Ed Husain's autobiography The Islamist: why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left (Penguin, 2007) is a remarkably candid account of the life of a British-born Muslim who was initially seduced by radicalism but gradually came to his senses to return to the more spiritual and devotional Islam that had defined his early years. It is also an important work, in that it both carefully grounds the issue of radicalisation that has so dominated recent intellectual and political discussion of Muslim communities in Britain, and points to potential solutions.