The debate over the trajectory of the Western sociopolitical system and its strained relations with Islam is the most pivotal of our time, as approaches decided upon today will impact billions not yet born. Two prelates in the ever more fractious Church of England provide a microcosm of this discourse.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali have emerged as central combatants in the dispute between two fundamentally opposed models of social organization: multiculturalism and universalism. The former bestows equal standing upon different cultures in the public square. The latter bestows equal standing upon individuals who wield a common set of rights and responsibilities. Which system prevails will ultimately determine the level of danger that homegrown Islamists pose to Britain, Europe, and the broader West.
Nazir-Ali believes that Britain’s campaign to reconstitute itself as a multicultural society has failed, and he explained why in a January 6 op-ed. By emphasizing differences over common values, his country has promoted alienation among Muslims, many of whom are “living as separate communities, continuing to communicate in their own languages, and having minimum need for building healthy relationships with the majority.” Since segregation breeds extremism, Islamist-dominated “no-go areas” now dot the map.
Indeed, as Britain increasingly accommodates the strictures of Islamic law in both welfare and finance, the radicalization of its Muslims continues apace. According to a 2006 Channel 4 survey, nearly one-quarter see the 7/7 London bombings as justifiable. A 2007 Policy Exchange poll found that 40% of Muslims under 24 prefer to be governed by Shari’a, while a shocking 36% believe that apostates from Islam should be “punished by death.” Extremist views are far more common among younger Muslims, portending trouble on the horizon.
The death threats that followed Nazir-Ali’s essay only bolstered his thesis. “The irony is that I had similar threats when I was a bishop in Pakistan,” he noted, “but I never thought I would have them here.” The rejection of reason is particularly disturbing to this learned man: “If you disagree, that must be met by counterarguments, not by trying to silence people. It was a threat not just to me, but to my family. … It gave me sleepless nights.”
Rowan Williams was likewise losing sleep — over the “damage” done by Nazir-Ali’s frank assessment of multicultural pieties. Speaking to the BBC on February 7, he ignited a firestorm of his own by suggesting that the official acceptance of some facets of Shari’a not only “seems unavoidable,” but could actually improve social cohesion. To Williams, the idea that “there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts — I think that’s a bit of a danger.”
In one sentence, Britain’s most influential cleric effectively discarded the primary achievement of Western civilization: a system in which all live as equals before a single standard of law. The logical consequences of his worldview were underscored by Melanie Phillips: “If there is no one law, there is no one national identity and therefore no society but instead a set of warring fiefdoms with their own separate jurisdictions.”
Williams and Nazir-Ali also illustrate how one’s preferred method of social organization — multiculturalism or universalism — frequently boils down to whether one acknowledges the righteousness of the Western enterprise. Preoccupation with the real and imagined crimes of the West can serve as a gateway to Islamist apologetics. And the archbishop is Exhibit A. free market, Williams sees only suffering: “Every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game.” And America’s role on the international stage is, of course, the height of iniquity. In contrast, he often excuses horrors committed in the name of Islam. While condemning terrorism, he has suggested that terrorists can “have serious moral goals.” He also laments the challenges faced by Middle Eastern Christians, but portrays them as victims of Western policies rather than of the Islamists threatening their lives.
Unlike Rowan Williams, Michael Nazir-Ali witnessed the realities of Shari’a law and radical Islam firsthand as a young Pakistani. These experiences eventually led him to Britain’s shores — and to an admiration for the freedoms nurtured in the West. Like Magdi Allam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Salman Rushdie, and Ibn Warraq, the future bishop escaped the stifling oppression of Shari’a to become an outspoken champion of Western values.
Shari’a “would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions for divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence,” Nazir-Ali said in response to Williams’ BBC interview. “This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and of expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy.” His statement reveals a keen understanding of the two groups that suffer an inferior status under Shari’a: women and non-Muslims.
Not satisfied with abstract musings, Nazir-Ali applies this knowledge to contemporary problems. In March he quizzed a Home Office minister on whether women threatened by forced marriages are being adequately protected, and last year he urged Muslim leaders to condemn violence against apostates. Williams, in contrast, has said little about either issue. The bishop of Rochester has also criticized amplification of the call to prayer, demanded that Britain carefully scrutinize foreign imams, and spoken out against face-covering veils— even as Williams insists that an attempt to limit them would be “politically dangerous.”
Nazir-Ali contends that the Western ethos did not arise by chance, but proceeded from “the Bible’s teaching that we have equal dignity and freedom because we are all made in God’s image.” Islamist encroachments are therefore symptoms of a more fundamental problem. “The real danger to Britain today is the spiritual and moral vacuum that has occurred for the last 40 or 50 years. When you have such a vacuum something will fill it,” he recently warned. “Do the British people really want to lose that rooting in the Christian faith that has given them everything they cherish — art, literature, architecture, institutions, the monarchy, their value system, their laws?”
Only time will tell.
Historians may one day look back on these two prelates and the church they serve — a body faced with plummeting attendance and approaching disestablishment — as symbols of the early twenty-first-century discourse over the future of the West. For now, Michael Nazir-Ali and Rowan Williams illuminate the diverging paths before us: one paved with an ardent defense of Western liberties, the other with a nihilism that leads inexorably to dhimmitude.
David J. Rusin is a research associate at Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania.