I was two minutes late.
My barrister friend had invited me to attend a lecture on the subject of Sharia Law and British Law. He'd invited me in early January and I'd pencilled it into my diary.
I was two minutes late arriving at the British Court of Justice and because they have such strict security, I was unable to enter. Instead, I had to console myself with watching a heated debate in the street between two women who shared my timekeeping predicament.
Rowan Williams announced to a packed room of about 1,000 people the existence of "the presence of communities which, while no less 'law-abiding' than the rest of the population, relate to something other than the British legal system alone".
This isn't really news. We've all heard of stories where family ties conflict with the interests of the law, but my take on this is that if there are people who don't relate to the British legal system, that's one thing. If they choose not to obey the law, then they're criminals. It's pretty simple, really.
I don't have a religous belief. I think the way that we are governed should be determined by reason, by agreement and not by revelation. God is not a democrat: what he says is law and must be followed without question and his laws are unchangeable. To me – any move away from a legal system that is determined by a democratic system is dangerous and possibly irrevocable.
Equality under the law is something we've treasured since the Magna Carta. And it's paid off: being free of despotism, having a system within which there are a series of rules that are predictable and which free the individual to be productive and achieve their potential; has allowed Britain to flourish.
In theory, even the Monarch can be tried for murder.
I usually like a good discussion. I think the one thing that unites pretty much all of my friends and many of my colleagues is that they are totally opposed to this idea. In some way, this is a shame because I'd like to at least what sort of justification there could possibly be for this idea.
So I've had to turn to the Internet. Apparently, some apologists claim that other religious groups are permitted to live according to their religious/ cultural norms, so why shouldn't Muslims? To me, the answer to this is pretty straightforward: everybody should be equal under the law, regardless of their beliefs.
As usual, the right-wing press has gone to town. It's quite funny to read the Daily Mail's comments on their site. One reader said,
"So it's fine for the UK law courts to adopt Sharia Law to fit Muslims' needs, but Christian people, in a historically Christian country, will be prosecuted for not promoting homosexuality? Something needs to change…"
"Not promoting homosexuality" is, of course, standard right-wing code language used to imply that homosexuals can only either be persecuted or "promoted", rather than just thinking, "it's none of my damn business if you're gay or not". Whatever the reader is getting at, would she prefer homosexuals to be persecuted in the name of Jesus or Allah? In the end, what's promoted by both religions is an intolerance of homosexuality.
We need to get rid of the intolerance of religion in our public discourse. It is the 21st Century and we're in Europe, we should move on from this primitive thinking and live and let live.
"Ah!", runs the counterargument, "If you want to live and let live, at least give us Sharia Law! We're not imposing it on you. We want to use it for ourselves; for our families and for our children."
We have to draw the line somewhere. We do so with some cultural practices. We have family law in place to protect vulnerable people in society. This includes women and children.
The moment you open up the "choice" to follow a more restrictive, paternalistic set of laws, rather than the laws of the land, you open up the opportunity to pressurise the vulnerable into laws that don't protect them as effectively.
There are also technical issues to do with, inter alia, deciding on which set of laws to apply to family court proceedings, and when; how to staff up the bar with Sharia-compliant barristers and importantly: coming to a clear definition of what Sharia actually means, since it appears to have different cultural influences in any case.
Is Rowan Williams Playing Chamberlain or Machiavelli? Is he giving in to demands made by a vocal minority, or is he playing the long game of protecting religious privilege? As I've mentioned earlier in this post, I think it wrong that any religious considerations are involved in making laws. I totally oppose the idea that you need religion to have morals. I think it wrong that churches can play the game of politics and remain tax-exempt. I think it's crazy that, in 21st Century Europe, we have bishops sitting in our upper chamber. Is Rowan Williams kicking up a fuss to drive people into supporting the status quo against the possibility of Sharia, and in so doing keeping the privilege with the Church of England?
I'm not saying that there aren't problems with integration at the moment. I think we need to look at our melting-pot and how we make it work. I'm from a mixed background myself, so I have a little bit of an insight here.
And you mustn't shove a group of people, religiously-identified or otherwise, into a legal ghetto because a minority of them demand it. Remember we're dealing with only a fraction of 3% of the population here. They're free to vote to elect people to try to change the law how they wish (within reason).
Until that time:
… do as the Romans do.