Sunday, 24 June 2012

Rowan Williams in the Observer: Muslim loyalty and the nation state


So a piece in today's Observer discusses Rowan Williams' forthcoming book, Faith in the Public Square, in which the Archbishop attacks David Cameron's 'big society' rhetoric. Excitingly, the article claims to be quoting from leaked passages of the book. Including the following, on Islam:
[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.'
That sounds pretty dismaying, and naturally it has drawn the ire of bloggers (e.g. here and here). But is it really possible to believe that these are Williams' own thoughts about Islam? 

He has written and lectured extensively on Islam in recent years. (If you search his website for 'Islam', you'll start to get the general idea.) He has discussed this issue of loyalty in other settings, and his views on the subject are no secret. He thinks that loyalty to the international Muslim community, the Umma, “is very close to what a Christian would say about loyalty to the church”. He notes that “the kind of comprehensive loyalty we associate with the nation state is a very modern and local phenomenon.” He stresses that, for Muslims and Christians alike, loyalty to one’s country is not a matter of “foolish” patriotism, but is “fundamentally a moral and religious loyalty, the kind of loyalty which holds you accountable to God.” Those quotes are from his published Zaki Badawi Memorial Lecture on Islam, Christianity and Pluralism, pp. 6-7

Williams has written so much on Islam in recent years, all along similar lines, that I find it impossible to believe that his new book will argue the proposition that “Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state.” Disregarding the question of Muslims, Williams doesn't believe that anyone ought to have a straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state”!

So what's the explanation for this sensational report in the Observer? I'd be willing to bet you five dollars that the passage quoted is, in fact, just the summary of someone else's view – a view of religion and national loyalty that Williams is critiquing. The line has been lifted out of context for journalistic purposes: it's the oldest trick/mistake in the book.

[UPDATE: A commenter at AUFS has identified the full 2004 lecture in which this passage appears – you can read it here. Williams is indeed merely summarising the way 'liberal commentators' talk about Islam, and his whole lecture is an attempt to explain why their view is inadequate. Interestingly, while Williams notes that such commentators view Muslim loyalty to the Umma as 'worrying', the Observer writer appears to have slipped in an additional adverb: 'extremely worrying'!]

This reminds me of a front-page newspaper article many years ago, back in ancient Israel. While the Psalmist was still hard at work on his latest song, an eager journalist got his hands on some leaked passages. Next morning, the headlines were printed: PSALMIST SAYS: THERE IS NO GOD. If only he'd waited for the published version – it was Psalm 14 – he would have seen the line in its proper context: 'The fool hath said, There is no God.'

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