British intellectual life has long harbored a strain of militantly self-satisfied foolishness, and the present archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a perfect exemplar of the tendency. In an interview with the BBC on February 7, the archbishop said that it “seems unavoidable” that some aspects of sharia, or Islamic law, would be adopted in Britain: unavoidable, presumably, in the sense in which omertà seems unavoidable in the island of Sicily.
The archbishop spoke to the BBC on the same day that he delivered a lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice in London before an audience of distinguished lawyers, including the Lord Chief Justice. Williams suggested—or, given the opacity of the language that he habitually employs, apparently suggested—that some elements of sharia should enjoy joint jurisdiction with British law. The passage that caused an immediate furor and has led to calls for his resignation was that in which he spoke prospectively of a “transformative accommodation,” borrowing the phrase from a recent monograph by legal scholar Ayelet Shachar. Such an accommodation, he said, would allow individuals to “retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve carefully specified matters,” and ensure that, in Shachar’s words, “power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents.”
Rarely does philosophical inanity dovetail so neatly into total ignorance of concrete social realities: it is as though the archbishop were the product of the coupling of Goldilocks and Neville Chamberlain. Those more charitably inclined point out that the archbishop is an erudite man, a professor of theology who reads in eight languages and who was addressing a highly sophisticated audience, employing nuanced, subtle, caveat-laden arguments. He was not speaking in newspaper headlines, nor did he expect to make any headlines with his remarks.
Charity is a virtue, of course, but so is clarity: and it is the latter virtue that the archbishop so signally lacks. He assumes that the benevolence of his manner will disguise the weakness of his thought, and that his opacity will be mistaken for profundity. Here is a telling passage from the lecture:
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—that is, to see it as a mechanism whereby any human participant in a society is protected against the loss of certain elementary liberties of self-determination and guaranteed the freedom to demand reasons for any actions on the part of others for actions and policies that infringe self-determination.
Reading or hearing this, one wants to pull one’s hair out. Charity surely requires compassion not for Williams, but for the audience obliged to listen to him. The archbishop goes on for pages and pages in this vein:
Earlier on, I proposed that the criterion for recognising and collaborating with communal religious discipline should be connected with whether a communal jurisdiction actively interfered with liberties guaranteed by the wider society in such a way as definitively to block access to the exercise of those liberties; clearly the refusal of a religious believer to act upon the legal recognition of a right is not, given the plural character of society, a denial to anyone inside or outside the community of access to that right.
There is only one word for a society in which such discourse can pass for intellectual subtlety and sophistication, and lead to career advancement: decadent.