Monday, 25 June 2012

Once more on Rowan Williams, Islam, and loyalty

Well, I contacted the author of yesterday's Observer piece on Rowan Williams. I explained that the potentially inflammatory quotations about Islam had been lifted out of context, and that they were actually statements of a position that Williams rejects. The Observer writer flatly denied that he had taken the quotes out of context. Maybe that's my fault; maybe my post yesterday wasn't explicit enough. So let me try this again.

Here are some excerpts from the original 2004 lecture which forms part of Williams' new book, Faith in the Public Square. The lecture is titled "Convictions, Loyalties, and the Secular State" – this is the section of the book from which the quotes on Islam were taken in yesterday's Observer. The sentences quoted in the Observer are in bold:

... the person's religious commitment involves both an additional level of social belonging, a membership in some other nexus of relations than that of the state, and a formation in critical questioning of the state's decisions, a reluctance to take for granted the legitimacy of these decisions without some further scrutiny.

This whole cluster of issues has become more immediate and practical with the current complexities over the modern state's relation to Muslim identity. Liberal commentators properly concerned to combat anti-Muslim prejudice ... persist in assuming that Islam is a set of convictions in the mode of much modern Christianity. To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the international Muslim community, the Umma, is worrying; it is a factor in Muslim identity (say the liberal commentators) that intensifies suspicion towards the Muslim community in a quite unnecessary way. What is desirable is thus for Muslims to make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state, unaffected by the private convictions that individual Muslim believers happen to hold in common.

...Maleiha Malik, a professional jurist of Muslim allegiance, has recently written at length on this conflict....

What this implies is in fact a subtle reframing of the issue of loyalty. Loyalty to a sovereign authority is replaced by or recast as identification with a public process or set of public processes; the simple question about loyalty, 'Are you with us or against us?' becomes a question about adequate and confident participation in a law-governed social complex. We are taken beyond a polarised picture of exclusive loyalty to the state menaced by mysterious fifth column-ish affiliations elsewhere. Loyalty to the Umma is not necessarily in competition with dependable citizenship in the state if the state's practices of consultation and acknowledgement of communal identities remove the threat of a total and terminal privatising of religious conviction.

This particular discussion ought to sharpen the agenda of Christian theologians, and to send them back to some foundational texts. Early Christianity, as we have seen, is a communal phenomenon proclaiming an allegiance that is deeply threatening to the unitary and sacred identity of the ancient city and the ancient empire. I have argued elsewhere that what we find in some of the records of the martyrs is in fact a surprisingly novel account of political loyalty: the accused refuse to treat the emperor as divine, but they accept the duty of paying taxes and praying for the public good. Thus they see themselves as participating in a public process, not as rebels against existing order; but they will not regard their loyalty to the state as a matter of exclusive and absolute obligation, religious obligation. They are, it seems, trying to clarify the sense in which political loyalty and religious loyalty are not in direct competition.

... While not a simple rival to the secular state, [the Church] will inevitably raise questions about how the secular state thinks of loyalty and indeed of social unity or cohesion. To this degree, it is not in a different case from the Muslim Umma.
As if by magic, this account of loyalty in Christianity and Islam becomes, in the Observer:
[Williams] also calls for greater integration of Muslims living in Britain and insists they make their loyalty to "the nation state" rather than "the international Muslim community". "To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the International Muslim Community [the Umma] is extremely worrying," he writes. "Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state."
I'm sure this was an honest mistake – we've all misquoted things under the pressure of deadlines. But after Rowan Williams has spent so much of the past decade trying to build bridges between the church and Muslim communities in Britain, it was dismaying to see how quickly this paragraph was quoted across the web as evidence that Williams is, after all, a reactionary Islamophobe. By the time it got to the American papers, the headline had become: "Archbishop of Canterbury Ridicules Muslims..."

That's why I think the Observer ought to publish an apology.

1 Comment:

Gary said...

Thanks for confirming my suspicion thar Williams was taken out of context.

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