Few people would have expected the Archbishop of Canterbury - the spiritual guide to the Anglican Church - to suggest that the introduction of sharia law into Britain was not just 'inevitable' but also desirable. Equally few people could have expected that his comments would bring down on his head a torrent of condemnation of almost biblical proportion. The unholy row tells us much about the insecurities bedevilling Britain today.
In a speech last week on 'Civil and Religious Law in England', the Archbishop, Rowan Williams, argued that in a plural world of divided cultural, religious and ethnic loyalties, it is 'very unsatisfactory' for a citizen 'simply to be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state'. Religious law, he declared, cannot be totally subservient to criminal and civil law. Rather secular law must be modified to accommodate religious sensibilities. Muslims should not have to choose between the 'stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty'. What we need is a system of 'plural jurisdictions' under which individuals possess 'the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters'. There is a 'danger', the Archbishop told the BBC, in saying that 'there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said.'
There is, in fact, little new in any of this. Multiculturalists have long argued that the existence of a plural society raises questions about the imposition of universal laws. Equality, they claim, means not the right to be treated the same in spite of one's differences but rather the right to be treated differently because of them.
Both the Archbishop and the multiculturalists get their arguments back to front. The development of pluralism does not raise questions about secular law. Rather, it was precisely the existence of a plural, fragmented society that led to the establishment of universal, secular law in the first place. The real danger lies not in the imposition of a single law for all, but in the suggestion that the same law should not apply to everyone. Equality needs a common yardstick by which measure everyone, and democracy requires that whatever our loyalties or beliefs, we abide by the decision of the majority and not opt out every time we disagree.
Of course, communities (religious or otherwise) have the right to organise their own rituals, create their own criteria for membership and expulsion, or establish their own forms of mediations for disputes, free of interference from the state so long as those actions do not undermine the existing rights of individuals or conflict with the secular laws of the land. What is unacceptable is for religious groups to call upon the power of the state to help enforce their own codes of speech and behaviour. That is why it would be wrong for official recognition of sharia law even if only, as the Archbishop suggests, in 'carefully specified matters; such as marital disputes or child custody.
But that is also why the Archbishop raised the issue. For at the heart of his speech was an argument for a new compact between faith and state, an argument driven largely by the crisis facing the Anglican Church. The Church of England has a privileged place in British society as the Established Church. The British monarch, for instance, has to be C of E and certain Anglican rituals - such as the marriage ceremony - have a legal authority denied to the rituals of other religions. But the social influence of the Anglican Church has greatly diminished - there are more practicing Catholics in Britain now than there are Anglicans - and it is rent by divisions between liberals and traditionalists.
This crisis of authority makes it more necessary for the Church of England to cling on to its privileges. But it also makes it more difficult to do so. So instead of making a theological case for giving religious conscience a special place in the legal system, the Archbishop talked instead in the language of secular pluralism. And instead of arguing for maintaining the Church of England's privileges, he made a case for an accommodation to the needs of Islam. The consequence of such moral cowardice has been to deepen the Anglican crisis further.
If the Archbishop lacked the courage of his own convictions, so surprisingly did many of his critics. Politicians, newspaper commentators and bloggers - all poured bucketfuls of abuse on the Archbishop's head. But rather than challenge the real problems with the Archbishop's argument, most simply raised the spectre of Islam. If the Archbishop had his way, they suggested, we would end up with a Britain in which criminals would have their hands chopped off, adulterers would be stoned and women forced to accept second class status. But however wrongheaded the Archbishop's argument, it is more than a little disengenuous to suggest that he was talking about turning Britain into Saudi Arabia.
What the row reveals is the way that Islam has become a surrogate language for political and social debate - and not just in Britain. Rather than having the courage to stand up openly for their own beliefs, whether in defence of religion or secularism, multiculturalism or universalism, politicians and commentators all too often prefer to argue about the merits of Islam. It is an obsession that makes for an unhealthy political culture - and diverts attention from the real debates we need to have about religion, secularism and identity.