Drowning out proper debate

By Simon Barrow
February 20, 2008

What is at stake in the row occasioned by Rowan Williams' Sharia musings is the possibility of reasoned discourse and a serious consideration of Islam in Europe, says Catholic scholar Tina Beattie.

She writes: "[T]he furious response to the archbishop's comments reveals a great deal about the hostility and ignorance with regard to Islam which forms a potent undercurrent in Britain's ostensibly multi-cultural society. It is also a reminder - if such reminders are needed - that this is a woefully anti-intellectual society, fed on a daily diet of the tabloid press and reality television, and apparently incapable of engaging in intelligent public debate about significant issues. Serious journalists who ought to know better have derided Williams for being too scholarly; the widespread belief seems to be that he has only himself to blame if people failed to grasp the subtleties of his argument. The logic of this message is that public figures must "dumb down" or be damned.

"The days since the 7 February [2008] lecture have exposed more than the astonishingly personalised hostility which has become the routine fate of all those who find themselves the target of the media's (and, it must be said, a section of the public's) ire - in the latter case, a phenomenon fed both by the "old media" itself and by the "new media's" specialist tools of instantaneity and anonymity. They have also revealed again just how chauvinistic the media in Britain can be, in this case by preying on public perceptions of Islam as a misogynistic and barbaric religion which has nothing to offer to and everything to learn from modern western secularism. The combination of ignorance and prejudice here recalls the comment of Akbar S Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat and scholar of Islam: "Nothing in history has threatened Muslims like the western media."

"In its conservative versions, Islam does pose a challenge to modern western values, particularly with regard to its treatment of women and its resistance to the idea of religious freedom. Yet the archbishop makes very clear that he rejects any change in the law which would deprive individuals of the rights they are entitled to as modern British citizens; and nowhere does he offer encouragement or affirmation to what he refers to as "Islamic primitivists."

"There are many within the Muslim community who would be highly resistant to attempts by a conservative religious minority - far less an even smaller minority of radical Islamist extremists - to impose their narrow definition of Islam on the majority. The reaction to Rowan Williams' address among Muslims has made clear the broad consensus among liberal Muslims that they value the freedoms and rights afforded by modern secular democracies as much as does any other community or group.

"At the same time, I believe that Muslims in western societies still bear a considerable responsibility in showing that they do in fact respect the freedoms and equalities which underpin these societies, particularly with regard to the treatment of women. There are very real issues of concern here which must be debated and not evaded."

Read the full article on OpenDemocracy: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/faith_ideas/europe_islam/sharia_law_uk

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