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Getting past our hysteria over Islam - columnists - Getting past our hysteria over Islam

February 14, 2008 Haroon Siddiqui

Eighteen months ago, the Pope spoke negatively about Islam, and got into trouble with Muslims. Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about folding some parts of the Islamic sharia into the British legal framework, and got into trouble – mostly with non-Muslims.

Muslims are in no mood to listen to lectures about Islam from the West. Westerners don't seem to want any accommodation with Islam. We got a glimpse of that even in Ontario, during the so-called sharia debate and the recent election on the issue of funding for religious schools.

Both the Pope and the archbishop claimed that their nuanced arguments had been misconstrued. The Pope's weren't, Rowan Williams's were. The Pope hurled theologically questionable and historically inaccurate charges, as he himself seemed to recognize later. The archbishop's argument is contemporary, compelling and one on which he's not backing down:

When there's conflict in a democracy between the secular law and religious belief, what gives?

This is a very Canadian question. Notwithstanding our own periodic disagreements over reasonable accommodation, we have developed more case law on it than others have.

The archbishop noted there is already a "conscientious opting out" by medical professionals on abortion. British Catholic adoption agencies resist gay couples as adoptive parents. Some groups oppose stem-cell research. Some Muslims use religious arbitration to settle family business disputes, just as some British Jews use the rabbinical courts.

Yet there is "a great deal of uncertainty about what degree of accommodation the law of the land can and should give to minorities with their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes. This is not only an issue about Islam but about other faith groups," he said.

His sin was that he spoke of the sharia, even though he ruled out most of it: "Nobody in their right mind," he told the BBC, "would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states – the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women."

Even for religious arbitration, he had caveats: that it be voluntary and its rulings conform to civil law.

This is precisely what Marion Boyd of the Ontario sharia panel had said. Many didn't want to hear her and many don't want to listen to the archbishop. It is instructive as to who opposed him the most:

Conservative Christians angry at his support for gay rights and not enough support for preserving the biblical basis of British law. Those rightly angry at the plight of Christians in Muslim lands but who hold the wrong notion of holding Muslims in the West as hostage to obtain reciprocity. Those who think there is a strict separation between church and state, when there isn't. In Britain, the Queen is the head of the Anglican church and in Ontario, there's funding for Catholic schools and – until Premier Dalton McGuinty finds a way out, as he says he will – there's the Lord's Prayer at the Legislature.

The invocation is innocuous. Religious arbitration involves a few hundred people at best. Most of us oppose funding for private schools. But we all should worry about this:

In the Muslim world, they take to the streets on the subject of Islam. Here, we get hysterical. One is often violent, the other never is. But the result is about the same: No "critical and intelligent" engagement of the sort the archbishop was looking for, even if he has a tin ear for prevailing public opinion.

Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday and Sunday. Email:


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