Thursday, February 21, 2008

February 14

I continue to follow the furor over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s raising of the question of sharia law in England. I’m still not completely certain what he has raised, but think that he is suggesting that certain kinds of family matters might be dealt with in religious tribunals that have some kind of ‘official’ recognition akin to that of the beth din of Orthodox Judaism.

I was first introduced to sharia and its effects in the Sudan in 1998. This Islamic law had been imposed on a country by a fundamentalist Muslim government whose explicit agenda was the whole of the Sudan (and preferably the whole of Africa) would come under such conservative fundamentalist religious rule. It was a curious mixture of things. Sharia apparently allowed the persecution of Christians and others and their being herded into large refugee camps, but art the same time required that the Christians in these camps be allowed to build schools and educate their children. The same law had nothing to say when soldiers subsequently and regularly knocked down these schools and destroyed them. It is sometimes hard to sort out what is cultural and what is religious (such as when we were seeking a burial plot for a Bosnian refugee some years ago and the family did not want burial near Arab Muslims –this, apparently, was a cultural norm –prejudice?—not a religious requirement.) In the same way it is sometimes hard for an outsider to sort out what is fundamentalist extremism and what is religiously necessary (i.e. the calls for a British teacher in Sudan to be executed because her children elected the name Mohammed for the class teddy bear or the furor over the publication of cartoons in the Netherlands).

In light of what I wrote yesterday, it seems really important that we forge the kind of relationship that will allow us some window on these matters other than that of what someone has called a ‘feral’ press. My own instinct is that there is one law of the land for all people and that groups within a nation can decide to operate however they like as long as it is not in contradiction to the law. It makes sense to me that the Supreme Court rather than some religious authority would decide at what point withholding medical treatment for a child of Christian Science parents is illegal, for example.

I also know that I no more wish to live under sharia than I wish to live with the norms and mores of society in rural Tanzania, much as I love many of the people I have met there, as I think the way women are treated diminishes everyone involved. I also believe that is for those people to sort out. (Apparently they do not see much that is truly ‘liberated’ in Western culture that makes change look attractive. Visiting the West still seems to be high on the agendas of many however.) I feel the same way about a government dominated by fundamentalist Christians and think we have come dangerously and repressively close to that from time to time. (Remember James Watt? ) This is quite different than conservatism. I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Christopher Hitchens in his article (though not the headline) published in the online magazine, Slate .

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