David Cameron confronts Sharia law to assert British values
Following the Prime Minister’s Munich speech in February when he spoke of the failure of multiculturalism, the Government is now fleshing out the policy and explaining the practical implications. Having unequivocally and quite rightly declared war on Islamism (ie Islamic terrorism), it is widely reported (and here, here and here) that the Government now intends to tackle ‘radicalisation’ (ie the cause of Islamism) by cutting state funding ‘to any Islamic group that espoused extremist views’.
These ‘extremist views’ have yet to be codified, but they must of necessity include those precepts of sharia which are inimical to the values of a liberal democracy. David Cameron has already called for an end to the sharia agenda : he made it clear that any expansion of the Islamic code in the UK would indeed undermine society and alienate other communities. He was right to observe that two codes of law cannot work side-by-side: one must give way to the other. We cannot have different laws for different communities: all citizens must be equal before the law, under the ultimate jurisdiction of English or Scottish law.
And so it appears henceforth that Islamic groups will need to subscribe to ‘key British values’. Home Secretary Theresa May criticises in particular the Federation of Student Islamic Societies for being soft on extremism. “They need to be prepared to stand up and say that organisations that are extreme or support extremism or have extremist speakers should not be part of their grouping,” Mrs May said.
But here’s where it gets interesting.
The Government defines as extremist anyone who ‘does not subscribe to human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in society’, including those who ‘promote or implicitly tolerate the killing of British soldiers’.
Those who actively and explicitly promote the killing of British soldiers are traitors to the state and (in His Grace’s opinion) ought to be dealt with in the traditional manner. But the ‘implicit toleration’ of such killing is treason of quite a different hue: it appears that the Muslim Council of Britain will no longer be able to maintain a dignified silence when the UK goes to war with some section of the Ummah, for silence will surely amount to implicit toleration. Does praise of bin Laden (his heirs and successors) amount to implicit toleration of the killing of British soldiers? Does the refusal of a British Muslim soldier (or reservists) to fight in Iraq or Afganistan constitute implicit toleration of the killing of their comrades?
And what of ‘human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in society’? Is the European Convention on Human Rights now sacred writ? Is the creed of liberalism now so absolute that none may question it? Is government funding to be withdrawn from all who question the inviolability of ‘equality’? What is this ‘full participation in society’? What of (say) the Christadelphians, a community patterned after first century Christianity, who do not vote and will not join HM Armed Forces? Do they subscribe to an ‘extremist philosophy’? What of the Plymouth Brethren, who may be perceived to be more than a little antithetical to gender equality and a little narrow and imbalanced with their homeschooling curriculum?
By codifying a set of values to which Muslim groups will need to subscribe, the Government is effectively reintroducing a Test Act: only those who profess adherence to the orthodoxy (of the Established Church) will be eligible for public funding and government engagement. In addition to combating violent extremism, the Government will tackle ‘extremist philosophies’ by looking closely at ‘the values’ of the organisations themselves. Mrs May said: “There’s an ideology out there that we need to challenge and when we first came in as a government one of the things we were very clear about here at the Home Office was we needed to look at extremism, not just violent extremism.” The assertion is that violent extremism is incubated within the ideology of non-violent extremism.
This is quite possibly the most significant shift in the Conservative Party’s religio-political history since Catholic emancipation. As a Tory-Whig church party it gradually (and rightly) eschewed petty denominational concerns in order to become the Conservative ‘broad church’ (quite literally) consonant with two centuries of more ecumenical political philosophy.
While everyone knows that the target is Islam, the Home Secretary has moved swiftly to quell any whiff of inquisition: “We should not just look at one particular type of terrorism but look at violent extremism and terrorism more widely as well,” Mrs May said. This must mean the Government is not looking only at one particular philosophy but at ‘extremist philosophy’ more widely.
So Methodists, Baptists, Christadelphians and Plymouth Brethren beware.
In order to address the issue of ‘extremist philosophy’, one must tackle certain sharia schools and colleges (do NOT click here if you may be offended by images of sharia punishment). Michael Gove seems already to be on the case. He'll need a whole new Ofsted regime to deal with these issues, but the Department for Education has hitherto shown itself to be remarkably complacent.
And then the Government must closely examine the ‘values’ inculcated in schools by the distinct ethos now permitted under the free schools initiative: ‘creationism’ is the least of our problems.
But it is worth asking why this Test applies only to the receipt of government funding or the honour of government engagement.
Should not all those who hold ‘un-British views’ be dealt with appropriately? If it is right to tackle (say) the intolerance of equal rights for women, because ministers now believe there is a link between non-violent extremism and violent acts of terrorism, then a fortiori it must be right to confront any expression of dissent from state orthodoxy, even when that dissent is non-violent.
There are serious implications here for religious liberty which the Prime Minister (surrounded by ‘religiously illiterate, secularist advisers’) has not even begun to consider.
A Briton presently has the right to oppose or support British policy in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya and may campaign to that effect, write, agitate and stand for election towards the chosen end. A corollary of such democratic engagement is that (s)he does not have the right to stone adulterers to death, bomb the underground or attempt to blow up aeroplanes. But there are many and diverse religious practices which conflict with traditional British liberties (ie ‘values’); they are a logical consequence of a pluralism and the development of a multi-faith society. While few would defend such abhorrent practices as forced marriages, ‘honour killings’, female genital mutilation or child abuse, there is a manifest tension between the assertion of individuality over the common good, and ‘human rights’ over community cohesion. Since there are no agreed criteria by which conflicting religious claims can be settled, religion is increasingly relegated to the private sphere: morality thereby becomes largely a matter of taste or opinion, and moral error ceases to exist.
The modern era is obsessed with three themes – autonomy, equality and rights. These are the values that allow each to be whatever he or she chooses. Left unfettered, the assertion of these leads to anarchy, so a British ‘values system’ has to be imposed for society to function at all. As society expands to encompass ever larger numbers of religious, ethnic and linguistic groups, rigid social structures are stretched to breaking point. The church requires either cultural homogeneity or an élite sufficiently powerful to enforce conformity. But this negates the limited degree of Christian religious pluralism which the passing of the 1689 Act of Toleration specifically permitted. Dissenting traditions have gained in number and influence and have weakened the grip of state religion. The costs of coercing religious conformity are no longer politically acceptable: the state is not willing to accept the price in social conflict and so adopts a position of ‘neutrality’ on the competing claims of various religious bodies and moral values.
The ultimate source of the state’s values system is the subject of much debate. In order to constrain religious expression in the public sphere, the Republic of France has legislated to prohibit the display of all religious symbols and articles of clothing from its public buildings. More recently, President Sarkozy stated that burqas are to be banned, which comes into effect next week. He asserts that the garment 'demeans and debases women’.
In the UK, customs to do with dress, food laws or daily prayers have long been considered inoffensive as long as there is no compulsion or imposition. But the advent of sharia courts, while considered ‘unavoidable’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury, are, according to former Bishop of Rochester Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, perceptibly inconsistent with what have become inalienable values such as equality between men and women in the sight of the law, inheritance rights, the education and employment of women, and the freedom of young people to chose themselves whom they will marry. There have been rabbinical courts (Beth Din) in the UK for three centuries, and the Protestant state has similarly granted to Roman Catholics the right to take account of their own religious sensitivities. But these judicial provisions have always been subject to Statute Law, and appeal has always been possible from their judgements. This settlement is now being challenged by sharia courts, some proponents of which insist that their dispensations are superior to parliamentary statute.
There is no doubt that some religious practices may coerce some, especially women through such conventions as child marriage or inequitable divorce settlements. But mindful of minority ethnic voting communities, politicians hitherto have been treading carefully along the via media between religious liberty and cultural prohibition. On this model of Britishness, there has been no demand for assimilation.
David Cameron is now demanding precisely that.
In consideration of what may constitute core British values, His Grace has already spoken.
The Christian moral social contract which existed (at least through the tinted lens of ‘Britishness’) has now been replaced by a new liberal moral uniformity. While the former was Anglican and benign, the latter is perceived to be increasingly intolerant of the dissident and unorthodox, seeking to impose itself in order to create social cohesion and control. Indeed, although the guiding principles of liberalism are respect for and tolerance of the ‘other’, it is itself increasingly being seen to be disrespectful and intolerant of the illiberal. This is antithetical to our ‘core values’. When we cease to tolerate benign dissent, we cease to act in accordance with the grand harmony of British history: indeed, we cease to be British.
To be British is to be free – to believe, to own, to contract and to associate. The state only has authority to the extent granted by Parliament, which is subject to the assent of the people. The foundations of those liberties – Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, Bill of Rights, Act of Union – guard against state coercion. To abrogate them is to diminish our liberty and to deny our heritage. It is not British to be subject to foreign parliaments or alien courts – temporal or spiritual – especially where they seek to impose a doctrine or creed which is antithetical to that which we have evolved over the centuries. The sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament is inviolable.
To be British is sometimes to tolerate conflicting philosophies, mutually-exclusive theologies and illogical propositions.
But not at any cost.