It is astonishing how much flack Rowan Williams has received after opening up a debate on secular law and religious conviction. A look at the transcript of the lecture and a listen to the BBC interview will show, I think, that what is being said by the Archbishop is cautious and extremely complex – as you would expect given the complexity of the issues that he discusses. The following is an extract from the lecture:

The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural – as many political theorists have pointed out – this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities.

This is just a small part of the (occasionally heavy-going) manuscript: intelligent, informed and academic stuff! One of the dominant themes is how, as a society and in law, we should respond to a culture shot through with ‘multiple affiliation’ – that is ‘membership in different but overlapping sets of social relationship’. As Williams stresses, this is not just about British Law and Muslims. As an issue in political philosophy this runs deep.

There is no way to ‘sum up’ in some brief statement of opinion what is being discussed. No sound-bite is fitting or catchphrase appropriate. Yet the shower of ‘fierce attack’ splashed all over the media suggests otherwise.

As an example, the BBC reports that

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said he had “an enormous amount of respect” for Dr Williams, but could not agree with him on this issue.

On what issue? Precisely which miss-interpretation of the archbishop’s comments are you disagreeing with?

Genuine intelligent debate is pushed out of the public sphere, ridiculed almost, thanks to knee jerk reactions that simply fail to engage in any kind of necessary depth. Politicians are forced to actively reject less they are seen to endorse some single sentence misconstrual of a complicated issue.

I am also disappointed that I have been unable to find any comments in the mass media made by academics. Almost everyone’s frowns a awarded a column inch except, perhaps, for those most suitable to the task (of commenting, not frowning, though some academics I know…).

But I have gone on long enough. I end with a quote form the end of the William’s lecture. If a soundbite they want, why not this one?

In conclusion, it seems that if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of ‘deconstruction’ of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment.