Observer publishes partial correction to its inaccurate report of Rowan Williams’ views on Muslims

ENGAGE draws our attention to a short notice that appeared in Sunday’s Observer:

Our coverage last week of Faith in the Public Square, a forthcoming book by the archbishop of Canterbury (News), contained this quote, supplied to us by the publishers: “To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the international Muslim community (the Umma) is extremely worrying. Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state.” This is a representation of a view that the archbishop does not hold. It was drawn from a lecture he gave in October 2004 in which he went on to deconstruct the argument, maintaining that religious loyalty and political loyalty should not be seen as being in direct competition.

As we noted at the time, this wasn’t the only error in the Observer report. It also claimed that Rowan Williams had argued that “the Labour party was wrong in 2006 to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence” and that “disproportionate attention was being given to a hyper-sensitive minority”. In fact the archbishop broadly supported the Racial and Religious Hatred Act and the quote that included the phrase about “a hyper-sensitive minority” was a reference to criticisms made by opponents of the legislation – it certainly didn’t represent Williams’ own view.

The Observer also quoted Williams as stating: “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.” But this sentence appears as a qualifying comment at the end of a passage in which Williams makes the opposite case, namely that Western critics who abuse and insult a minority faith like Islam are not (as they like to portray themselves) a brave and persecuted minority engaged a heroic Voltairean struggle against a powerful enemy. Williams cites as an example the controversy over the Jyllands-Posten anti-Islam cartoons, noting 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”.

In fact the authors of the report – the Observer‘s political editor Toby Helm and its assistant news editor Julian Coman – hardly got anything right. Even the main claim in their story, that Williams had launched a new and unprecedentedly harsh attack on David Cameron’s “big society” policy, was wrong – the criticisms they quoted were from a lecture Williams gave back in March 2011. However, you suspect it was hardly accidental that the aspects of Rowan Williams’ thinking that were systematically misrepresented in the article all related to his views on Muslims.

The Observer‘s correction to the report is therefore still only partial. Furthermore, to quote ENGAGE: “Given that the original article was front page news and a full page spread in last week’s paper, does the paragraph printed on the Observer‘s Letters page suffice both in prominence and content by way of a retraction and apology?”