The main news story in the UK last week was the reaction to the comments of the archbishop of Canterbury regarding Sharia law. There were extremely strong counter reactions to his views.

In common with the majority of the British population I felt Rowan Willamson’s position to be fundamentally dangerous. Cultural relativism is an extremely useful research tool for anthropologists, sociologists, historians and even ecologists with an interest in resource management. We should all work hard on developing the admirable skill of listening and understanding the concerns and viewpoints that are the product of alternative world views. Individuals who hold culturally imposed beliefs that differ from our own should always be respected as individuals.

However I find myself in full agreement with Richard Dawkins in rejecting the extension of relativism to include tolerance for cultural practices that violate fundamental individual rights. The most shocking elements of the Archbishop’s speech were not the ones that got the publicity.

Rowan Williamson’s position was deliberately misunderstood and shamelessly exploited by right wing critics in the UK. He clearly did not argue that public stoning and beheading should become a part of an alternative Sharia law that would be tolerated under the British Judicial system. In one sense he made a quite reasonable case that some elements of civil life, such as divorce and family disputes could be settled by Muslims under Muslim customs. However he understated the most admirable aspect of the British judicial system. It is respect for the principle that disputes are settled through the careful inspection and evaluation of empirical evidence. I was deeply disturbed by the following phrase in Williamson’s speech …. “Perhaps it helps to see the universalist vision of law as guaranteeing equal accountability and access primarily in a negative rather than a positive sense”.

Of course the system in the UK is far from perfect, but when the principle (that is expressed as the right to a fair trial) is not upheld, we are generally appalled and demand “justice”. This is not the case in all cultures. I am frequently shocked and scared by the lack of respect for the fundamental principles of (my culturally constructed notion of) justice in Mexico. Hearsay evidence is considered of greater value than forensic evidence and “criminals” are considered guilty until proven innocent. Forty percent of the Mexican prison population has not yet faced trial for the crimes of which they are accused. This is not likely to change in the near future. The Mexican population appears to have a culturally constructed tolerance for “their” form of justice, that also extends to the denigration of captured criminals on public TV stations, after they have clearly been mistreated in custody.

This is the stark problem with relativism. Ironically it leads to a defense of a dangerous division based on a classification into “them” and “us”. Go beyond the Archbishop’s polished, academic, postmodernist speech (that I admit to finding impenetrable) and you encounter a much cruder, paternalistic form of relativism in which it can be justified to state that “they” should be allowed to settle matters according to “their” customs. I have no understanding of the way Sharia law evaluates evidence. However I doubt if the archbishop does either (“This lecture will not attempt a detailed discussion of the nature of sharia, which would be far beyond my competence”) . He was making a liberal point based on tolerance of a whole culture, not on respect for individual rights. I doubt if he knows whether, in matters of divorce, if a Muslim wife is reported as seen entering a car with a stranger that this is sufficient “proof” of infidelity and grounds for a divorce settlement that British law would consider unfair (recourse to obtuse statements regarding the “neuralgic questions of the status of women and converts” just don’t cut it for me. Postmodernism gives me a bigger headache). It may well be that evidence is weighed as carefully in a Muslim court as in British civil proceedings. However the precedent set by the implementation of judicial systems outside the UK does not bode well.

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