Observer misrepresents Rowan Williams on Muslims

Sunday’s Observer had a piece about a forthcoming book by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, entitled Faith in the Public Square. The main subject of the article is Williams’ criticisms of David Cameron’s “big society” policy. However, the authors also attribute to Williams some highly controversial views about the Muslim community:

The archbishop says that the Labour party was wrong in 2006 to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence, arguing that anti-Muslim statements could show courage. “The creation under British law of a criminal offence of incitement to religious hatred has provoked bitter and sustained controversy. Disproportionate attention has been given to a hypersensitive minority.

“Some anti-Muslim images or words (foolish and insulting as they may be) may well exhibit courage in a world where terrorist violence reaches across every national boundary.” He also calls for greater integration of Muslims living in Britain and insists they make their loyalty to “the nation state” rather than “the international Muslim community”. “To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the International Muslim Community [the Umma] is extremely worrying,” he writes. “Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state.”

Over at the Faith and Theology blog (“Rowan Williams in the Observer: Muslim loyalty and the nation state”) Ben Myers immediately expressed scepticism about the paper’s characterisation of the archbishop’s views on Muslims, asking “is it really possible to believe that these are Williams’ own thoughts about Islam?” Myers continued:

He has written and lectured extensively on Islam in recent years. (If you search his website for ‘Islam’, you’ll start to get the general idea.) He has discussed this issue of loyalty in other settings, and his views on the subject are no secret. He thinks that loyalty to the international Muslim community, the Umma, “is very close to what a Christian would say about loyalty to the church”. He notes that “the kind of comprehensive loyalty we associate with the nation state is a very modern and local phenomenon.” He stresses that, for Muslims and Christians alike, loyalty to one’s country is not a matter of “foolish” patriotism, but is “fundamentally a moral and religious loyalty, the kind of loyalty which holds you accountable to God.” Those quotes are from his published Zaki Badawi Memorial Lecture on Islam, Christianity and Pluralism, pp. 6-7.

Williams has written so much on Islam in recent years, all along similar lines, that I find it impossible to believe that his new book will argue the proposition that “Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state.” Disregarding the question of Muslims, Williams doesn’t believe that anyone ought to have a “straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state”!

It turns out that the Observer report is in fact misleading in almost every respect. It presents Faith in the Public Square as though the book features entirely new material, whereas in reality it is a collection of previously published lectures, as a press release on the archbishop’s website makes clear. The criticism of Cameron’s big society, which the Observer describes as “his strongest to date”, comes from a lecture entitled “Big society – small world?” that Williams gave back in March 2011.

As for Williams’ comments concerning Muslims, the Observer has completely misrepresented them.

The stuff about the religious hatred law is taken from the 2008 James Callaghan Memorial lecture entitled “Religious hatred and religious offence“. Judging by this lecture Williams lacks a clear understanding of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, but he didn’t say that “the Labour party was wrong in 2006 to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence”, still less that “disproportionate attention was being given to a hyper-sensitive minority”.

Williams did note that the religious hatred law had “provoked bitter and sustained controversy” and he referred to “the anxieties of those who believed that disproportionate attention was being given to a hyper-sensitive minority” – but he certainly didn’t say he was one of them.

He argued: “The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing…. How adequately the new laws will meet the case remains to be seen; I should only want to suggest that the relative power and political access of a group or person laying charges under this legislation might well be a factor in determining what is rightly actionable.”

By which I take him to mean that the law should be used to defend vulnerable minority faith communities rather the established church.

In that 2008 lecture Williams took issue with the depiction of present-day anti-religious polemic as a Voltairean struggle on the part of a “courageous and persecuted minority” against a powerful enemy. In the case of Islam, Williams argued that it was “perceived worldwide as an organised, coherent and omnipresent danger” and the publication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons was therefore portrayed as “a brave assertion of the right to attack the symbols of an oppressive global hegemony”. He observed that “the Muslim community in Denmark is neither large nor militant, yet the cartoon issue was framed as if these products were a sign of courageous defiance towards a hegemonic power”.

It is then that Williams adds certain qualifications, including the one the Observer quotes: “Some anti-Muslim images or words (foolish or insulting as they may be) may well exhibit courage in a world where terrorist violence reaches across every national boundary and intimidation is more and more common; no-one will forget in a hurry the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands.”

Which puts a rather different light on things, doesn’t it?

The even more controversial comments that the Observer ascribes to Williams, calling for Muslims to declare their loyalty to the British state rather than the Ummah, are taken from another lecture, “Convictions, loyalties and the secular state“, which dates from 2004. As Ben Myers points out, in the passage cited by the Observer Williams is not expressing his own views but “merely summarising the way ‘liberal commentators’ talk about Islam, and his whole lecture is an attempt to explain why their view is inadequate”. Myers has since posted a more detailed analysis of the Observer‘s misrepresentation of Williams’ views (“Once more on Rowan Williams, Islam, and loyalty”) here.

You might have thought that, in view of the fact that the Observer report got almost everything wrong, we could look forward to a retraction and apology in next Sunday’s issue. But apparently not. Ben Myers tells us: “I contacted the author of yesterday’s Observer piece on Rowan Williams. I explained that the potentially inflammatory quotations about Islam had been lifted out of context, and that they were actually statements of a position that Williams rejects. The Observer writer flatly denied that he had taken the quotes out of context.”