4 min

A religious power grab

Lessons learned from Britain's sharia law debate

Not content with trying to grab more power for their own religion, leaders are now apparently trying to gain more influence for other religions as well.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, recently publicly supported the introduction of sharia law for certain issues in Britain.

Sharia is Islamic law based on the teachings of the Koran and the sayings and deeds of the prophet Mohammed. The proposal in Britain, similar to one floated in Ontario, would allow certain questions of family law to be decided by an Islamic religious body.

Now why would an Anglican leader be supporting greater power for Islam in society? The obvious answer is that it’s a backdoor way of pushing for greater autonomy for Christianity. If Islam were able to obtain the right to rule on certain matters in Britain, that same right could hardly be refused to the country’s official religion, with the Queen as its titular head. And this way, Williams can’t be accused of a direct power grab.

What it’s all about is an attempt by religions to withdraw from the control of a secular government and legal system. If Williams and other leaders are successful, then the control of religions over families will be greatly increased, and the influence of a secular, multicultural society will be greatly reduced.

So what?, many people might ask. Let all the religious types go off by themselves and do whatever the hell they like. Good riddance to them. Why should we care?

Well if I were the suspicious type, I might say that the one thing both Islam and Anglicans have in common is problems with homosexuality. Williams makes a point of stressing that he doesn’t support the kinds of sharia rulings that have led to the execution of queers and women in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

But it was precisely the protests from women’s groups — including Muslim women’s groups — that led Ontario to scrap plans to introduce sharia law for certain family matters. Those groups claimed, persuasively, that even though participation in sharia rulings would supposedly be voluntary, the social pressure on women to participate would be immense. And those groups claimed that sharia rulings would almost certainly discriminate against women.

There’s also little doubt that such a system would make it even harder for young Muslim queers. Already facing condemnation from most of their religion, the possibility of the withdrawal of even the modest protections of a secular legal system might be the last straw.

As for the Anglicans, they’re busy tearing themselves apart over same-sex unions and the ordination of gays and lesbians. Would having their own mini-legal system allow the Anglican church to resolve this debate? Probably not the church as a whole.

But it might make it easier for disaffected congregations in the West — who are currently leaving North American dioceses to join deeply homophobic churches in South America and Africa — to discriminate against queers and to prevent same-sex unions and the ordination of gays and lesbians.

Am I just being paranoid here? We’ll see, I suppose. But if we start hearing Anglican leaders in Canada or the US calling for the institution of sharia law, then it’ll be time to start getting worried.

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Speaking of religions seeking to withdraw from secular control, last column I expressed confusion about whether I could both support Afrocentric, aboriginal and queer-centred schools while also opposing publicly funded religious schools.

Well, having thought about the issue further and having spoken to a number of people directly involved in the issue, I’ve decided that I can support the one and oppose the other.

How, you ask? Well to begin with there’s the argument from Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, that teaching religion to children is a form of child abuse. Dawkins’ argument, which makes sense to me, is that forcing children to believe in a supernatural being at a young age, rather than allowing them to make up their own minds as they grow, up is cruel.

Nobody chooses to be black or queer. You either are or you aren’t. But one does choose, if one is allowed that choice, whether to be Christian, Muslim or Jewish. I think the public school system in general should include classes that address all the major religions, but I don’t think I can support publicly funding schools that support religious inculcation.

It was also pointed out to me that the primary reason for establishing schools for black, native and queer students was that students in all three of those groups were performing academically at a much lower rate than other groups. For various reasons, those students are failing and dropping out of school at an alarming rate.

Students who belong to minority religious groups aren’t failing or dropping out at the same rate. If they belong to other groups like recent immigrants or those for whom English is a second language, they may have academic problems, but those problems don’t seem to be related to their religion.

I’ve also concluded that while Muslim or Sikh students, for example, might face discrimination, especially since the “war on terror,” it’s less likely to be based on their actual religious belief than on their appearance. Students might be abused for wearing turbans or hijabs, but such abuse is probably not an attack on their religious beliefs, per se, but on the way they look. That discrimination needs to be stamped out, of course, but an attack on a gay student is based directly on the student being gay.

But it’s still a tricky question. I would still like to hear from people about their thoughts on this issue. Do people agree with me on this or do you think I’m stretching the facts to fit what I want to believe?

Let me know.

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