“What a burkha” declared the Sun newspaper, alongside a picture of a head-covered figure making a rude gesture. To judge by the tone of the British press (and not only the tabloid press), the Archbishop””who is also the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, numbering 80m people””might have been advocating the mandatory covering of every female British head, plus the instant introduction of amputation, whipping and stoning for the most trivial misdemeanours.
In fact, of course, he said nothing of the kind. But what he did advocate was not uncontroversial: he suggested there could be a “plural jurisdiction” in which Muslims could freely decide whether disputes (in which only co-religionists were involved) were resolved in secular courts or by Islamic institutions which offer an alternative forum for arbitration.
As long as the decision to seek, and abide by, a form of arbitration is freely made, it is hard to see how any secular legal system could actually ban people from using it. But the extent to which state law can recognise and “use” decisions made by such private arbitration services is a difficult grey area. And perhaps””to interpret the Archbishop charitably””he was merely pointing out that such difficulties are bound to grow.
In any case, for those who are already making political capital by playing on people’s fears of multi-culturalism, the speech by the Archbishop was a gift And for some of the people who are concerned to defend the cultural rights of Muslims, both the speech and the reaction it prompted were an embarrassment, to put it mildly.