Beating up the Archbishop is just the beginning

The Archbishop of Canterbury is flying mighty close to the flame. In the recent past he has been engaged in careful and respectful conversation with the chief rabbis of Israel. Now he has talked about Muslims in England and their religions rights in a land ostensibly Christian. The first won considerable praise. The second has led to calls for his resignation. The whole matter has reached such a state that the Anglican Communion News Service has had to produce the transcript of the Archbishop's actual remarks in order to clear up the matter. His remarks have been set on with considerable glee by all sorts of critics. The Archbishop is taking a pounding. My fear is that the pounding is not coming because of possible remarks supporting Islamic laws that might or might not make their way into the society, but because across the board, his support of Semites is the problem.

Semite has become a code word for Jew. Of course it doesn't actually fit. You can be a Jew and not a Semite. You can be a Jew and not know a single bit of any Semitic language. But being a Jew you are a Semite. And whatever that means it at least means you are not "like us." It is a proto-xenophobic word. Fear and hatred of "them-not-like-us." So it turns out that in being open to conversation, and sometimes agreement, with Jews and Muslims, the Archbishop of Canterbury is playing into the xenophobic fears of England and the new Europe. There are too many of "them." So he is getting beaten up because his openness produces fear. But of course there is undoubtedly more to all of this. Not being English and not writing from that context I have only a limited sense of the issues. Still it is apparent that the Archbishop has stirred the pot and who knows what will come of it.

Antisemitism has a long and inglorious history in all of Europe and England (and for that matter the US) is not exempted. It is of course a reference to anti-Jewish prejudice and since the nineteenth century has almost always been in reference to the hatred of, prejudice against and fear of the Jews. Still, back there is also the wider sense of hatred of, prejudice against and fear of all Semitic peoples. The ways in which hatred of the Jews is expressed has become increasingly complex following the holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel and the rise of a critique of Israel that then is made an overlay on the still present virus that is antisemitism.

There are very persuasive arguments that antisemitism is alive and well in the so-called "new Europe" and that it builds its hatred of Jews on the often quite legitimate liberal criticism of the state of Israel. Thus it is argued,
the mechanics of liberal criticism become an vehicle for the hatred lurking in the shadows of the West.

Bernard Harrison's "The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism" (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2006) spells out in considerable detail the ways in which liberal opinion, whose criticism of Israel has become convoluted, has given rise to an antisemitism voiced by the very people who would cringe at the notion of Jew hating. It is a difficult read, alternately depressing and pedantic, but his effort is important. Harrison quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who said, "[The new anti-Semitism] is coming simultaneously from three different directions: first, a radicalized Islamist youth inflamed by extremist rhetoric; second, a left-wing anti-American cognitive elite with strong representation in the European media; third, a resurgent far right, as anti-Muslim as it is anti-Jewish." Harrison's primary interest is the left-wing cognitive elite, but for a moment we might turn our gaze to the third, "a resurgent far right, as anti-Muslim as it is anti-Jewish."

The far right has, in various parts of Europe, as in the US, has often taken the form of defending the country's "character." There are all sorts of worries about labor, documentation, language, customs, and now fears about the immediate violence of terrorism and the prolonged
violence of the overthrow of the dominant culture. Into these fears and defensiveness comes the Semite, for whom there has been centuries of baggage and recent history of struggle. And when the Archbishop is found working with them - Jews or Muslims - he becomes a traitor.

Liberal criticism would not suggest this, but perhaps in a slight kiss-off to religion in general, simply decide that the
Archbishop has gone bonkers. I don't dispute the possibility that he has indeed gone round the bend. Still I think not. Looking at the amazingly pervasive shouts of outrage, I wonder as to its source. Are those shouting using the Archbishop's comments to further a xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment that lies always dormant and ready to return?

We are none of us clean on all this. In the US xenophobia and antisemitism take on many disguises. But there are a number of people here who wonder just why most of the candidates for President seem not to be able to talk about Israel, antisemitism, and anti-Semite prejudices (against Muslims, Arabs, Jews, etc).

Back behind the anti-Semitic hate mongering against Muslims, particularly Arab Muslims, is the long history of skewed and wildly misrepresented image of Islam, Muslims and the Arab world.

Fredrick Quinn in his book "The Sum of All Heresies: The Image of Islam in Western Thought" (Oxford University Press, 2007) spells out the pervasive and continuous history of the ways in which Islam has been viewed in Western thought. It is a great read. That perception - that Islam and its adherents are primitive, violent, uncouth, under civilized, repressive and yet sexually exciting, and on and on - colors any possibility of addressing Islam in England or any other cohesive culture without already build-in prejudice and hatred.

It is no wonder then that the Archbishop catches hell for broaching the question of how adherents to Islam might find ways to express their religion in the context of a civil structure that has taken on the patina of a Christian based framework for law and structure of society. But he is being beat up not for these matters, I believe, but for exploring rather openly and in an investigatory sort of way, just how emerging religions viewpoints find their place in a society that has been formed and informed by Christian practice. In doing so he has touched on the xenophobia and latent antisemitism that exists just under the surface.

Some weeks ago there was a controversy about the possibility of the loudspeaker broadcast of the call to prayer in English towns. These same towns have no doubt had bells that rang the hours, or perhaps the hours for morning and evening prayer. I saw no one suggest that perhaps we Christians might live quite nicely with the call to prayer as well as the bells, reminding us too that we might take a moment to make the sign of the Cross, say an Our Father, and remember the Cross and Passion, and celebrate in joy the Resurrection (it takes all of five minutes.) Then we could give thanks that our Muslim brothers and sisters gave us yet another opportunity in the day's hectic cycle to remember God who redeems and saves.

No one suggested it because bells and calls have become matters of ideology among enemies, not matters of piety among friends.
We have a long way to go and we ought to cut the Archbishop of Canterbury a break.

Some time ago I wrote that I had heard the rumor that the ABC might resign after Lambeth. I don't know how he does it. This sort of beating can only add to the temptation to do precisely that. There are those calling for him to resign. I sometimes wonder why he doesn't. What a miserable job it must be at times.
Hopefully he gets the joy of feeling that what he is doing is gently nudging us to take seriously our divisions and to find new ways to relate. Meanwhile, the plague of antisemitism is still running its course against Jew and Semite both. It will take all our efforts to counter the fears and prejudice that support it.


  1. I appreciate what you are saying about antisemitism, Fr. Mark, but I'm also concerned about another elephant in the room, one the ABC didn't seem to pay much attention to: sexism.

    The reality of some Muslim women's lives in some communities in the UK is, from what I've read, that of being subject to the will of men. They are not on a level playing field when it comes to choices; they are not on a level playing field in a great deal of Shar'ia family law. And when it comes to making an appeal after a judgment is reached, I worry that these women's safety would be at risk if they tried.

    Women's lives are not academic. I fault the ABC for giving the potential for abuse under an extremely patriarchal system just a passing reference rather than the attention it deserves.

    Perhaps if the problem of patriarchal systems of dominance were addressed first, then the incidence of antisemitism and certainly sexism in the law would lessen considerably and another way, a third way, a way of reconciliation, could be found.

  2. Thank you so much for this! When I first heard of the ABC's remarks on sharia, I thought he must be referring to something like the bet din that Orthodox Jews use to settle disputes, even some civil matters. From Wikipedia:

    "The (Shulkhan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 26) calls for having civil cases judged by religious courts instead of taking their cases to secular judges (arka'oth). Because modern Western societies have increasingly permitted civil disputes to be resolved by private arbitration, religious Jews have taken advantage of this legal environment by signing arbitration agreements appointing a particular Beth Din as their arbitrators in the event of a dispute. By this device, the rules, procedures, and judgment of the Beth Din are accepted and can be enforced by secular courts in the same manner as those of a secular arbitration association. However, religious courts cannot decide such disputes without the prior agreement of both parties"

    Now, if both parties agree to this arbitration, that's an eminently sensible way of doing things and it frees up the clogged courts' time. Nobody bats an eye when Jews do it (although there are some acknowledged problems), but mention the word "sharia" and folks seem to become very irrational.

    Relax, folks. I hardly think +++Rowan wants to replace Scotland Yard with roving bands of enforcers ready to lop off hands and heads. Jews are allowed to settle their own internal religious and civil matters independently of the State. Christians are allowed to define such things are marriage and divorce independently of the State. Letting Muslims do the same is hardly going to bring the downfall of anything.

  3. Mark, there is lots of food for thought here. I'm not entirely sure though to what extent anti-Semitism is the umbrella under which to understand this situation. The vast majority of Muslims living in Britain are of South Asian origin, and therefore Indo-European rather than Semitic. Also, those most likely to be affected by the legal issues the Archbishop is trying to address are of low economic status, and many of the women have been brought over from Pakistan at quite young ages for arranged marriages. These women often lack the education, language skills and cultural know-how, or even the freedom of movement, to make use of the UK legal system. They are subject to the will of their husbands and in-laws. As Sheila points out, they don't have a legal playing field under Muslim law, and in terms of their financial dependency and social isolation in the marital home, they may have difficulty in gaining any support from the British legal system. Seeking such help may leave them homeless and destitute and cost them custody of their children, their physical freedom or in extreme cases even their lives. The extreme cases (wrongful psychiatric commitment or honor killing) may be rare, but the fact that they happen as much as they do keeps women in some communities pretty well cowed. 'Mediation' in a religious court would not necessarily work for these folks in a way that it would for Jewish women in Britain, who are far more acculturated and are starting from a more empowered position in every way than their Muslim sisters.

  4. I very much liked this Telegraph piece by Charles Moore:

  5. Mark, I think you have sketched too wide a canvas here, and that the major social problems between Islam and the West cannot adequately fit under the umbrella of anti-Semitism without an overactive shoehorn (although I certainly acknowledge that anti-Semitism is an increasing social problem in the West).

    I have recently spent some time in England, and I learned to announce early on to any new British acquaintance, "George W. Bush not MY president! I think he is a horror, and I disagree with virtually everything our government has done since he came into office." It was always a moment of relief for my Brit friends. One even said, "Ahhhhh, so you are NOT a Yank after all." Before I learned to make this declaration, I had been umbrella-ed as a "Yank" with all the terrible implications that carried. But, that prejudice was not actually anti-American, it was rather against the behavior of certain powerful Americans who happened to be in positions of power.

    So, too, the general Western disdain, despite, and fear of Islam is not, I think, truly "racial" at all: it is based on the (well-publicized) actions of "certain powerful Wahabist Muslims who happened to be in positions of power" and who are exposed by the media.

    I think the Archbishop's error was NOT in introducing the possibility that there may be some instances where traditional Islamic civic legal procedures might be accepted in British jurisprudence, but in his using the volcanic word "sharia"!

    And, so very sadly, he does continue to seem incapable of a practical sensitivity to his audience -- an intellectual naiveté which isolates him from the minds and hearts of those most affected by his words.

    His dealing with Jeffrey John, Gene Robinson, and the Episcopal Church show the same isolation from the impact of his words on others. I don't think he intends to hurt or alienate, but he seems unable to get outside of his own mind and into a sensitive consciousness of the hearts of others. It is almost as though he thinks, "If my mind works in this way, the minds of everyone else must also work i the same way." (And I good first step, I suspect, would be the firing of all his consultants/advisors at Lambeth. How could they allow this -- unless they mean intentionally to be working for his downfall!)

    Finally, I want to recognize and fully honor the issues raised by sheila and mary clara, and think they point out very serious dangers on the road ahead which must take absolute precedence over all other provisions. Indeed, the protection of brutally powerless Muslim women must be in first place in the considerations, but I suspect there may be a way to incorporate this concern in whatever practical proposals may be made.

  6. I'm getting very fed up with this criticism of the Archbishop that he was pastorally insensitive to his audience. He made a speech which majored on jurisprudence to an audience of jurists! What next? "Archbishop speaks theology to theologians shock!"?

    This furore is emphatically not about what +ABC did or did not say, how he did or did not say it. The hysteria is because those who wish to bring down the +ABC and those who feel threatened by the presence of Muslims within our society have allied themselves into a perfect storm of false indignation and meretricious outrage. And those of my American brothers and sisters who have used intemperate language about what +ABC has done or not done in the past have contributed to this. This is culture war, and Rowan is the shibboleth.

    ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
    “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
    For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

  7. Father Mark,

    You might give a listen to today's "Speaking of Faith". The whole hour was given to Ed Hussain, a former Islamist radical, who addresses these issues, including the antisemitism that still lurks discreetly in Britain (as well as in certain corners of the USA):


  8. Fr Mark -

    Another blogger has admirably explained ++Cantuar's lecture for the benefit of those who are determined to misread him:


    Hope it comes through

  9. The whole affair has been seized upon by the fundamentalist-Global-South-Sydney nexus as a way of undermining Rowan. Of five interviewees on BBC TV news programs, four were from Reform. Nazir Ali has seen another opportunity to get his revenge on the man judged more capable than he of filling the throne of St Augustine. Carey has weighed in, becaue he can't see a reporter without pontificating. Today, thanks to the BBC, we have even had the enlightening sound of Bishop Venables sticking his boot in - this from a man who has difficulty in understanding "the cat sat on the mat", let alone anything Rowan has written, said or thought.

    The British press has, as always, ignored the old maxim that empty vessels make most noise, and homes in on these air-heads to further its agenda of fostering both derision of the Church and fear of Islam.

    "Their throat is an open sepulchre: the poison of asps is under their lips"

  10. Sheila...no question the issue of women's lives is not academic, the patriarchal system abusive and the need to address this is there.

    Had the criticism been about what the ABC might have said about such matters, or even about his not saying anything about them, I would not have made the comments I made.

    Your outrage is expressed in faulting the ABC for "giving the potential for abuse under an extremely patriarchal system just a passing reference rather than the attention it deserves." You are right.

    But much of the outrage is not about his supposed acquiescence to or support of injustice to women. It is about the "them" suppored by hundreds of years of hatred of the religious outsider.

    It seems to me you are right too about dealing with patriarchal systems of dominance first.


  11. Mary Clara...You are right about Muslims not being in fact Semitic. It's a religion, not an ethnic group.

    My point (however poorly stated) is precisely that antisemitism is not finally about Jews alone, nor is it finally about Semites. It is about deciding that all Jews and Muslims are Semites so that there is the convenience of being able lump together Jew hatred (THE antisemitism of record) and wider hatred of all middle-eastern Semites, and the worlds Muslims.

    What you and Sheila point out is that any messing around with British law to step backwards on rights for women would be a grave injustice. So called mediation in religious courts can be a strong force for repression.

    Again, if the ABC is letting such talk slip into the conversations, then of course he needs to be held accountable. It appears that the press and commentators are doing that job.

    My concern is that those who are shouting "off with his head" are doing so not from any strong concerns for women and for justice, but because xenophobia and trained antisemitism, buried under years of relative politeness, is on the rise.

    I would be glad if you were completely right and I was completely wrong. Maybe, unfortunately we are both right.

    If so, let's get at the ABC on the issues, not on the fears.

    I am reminded of the strange debate going on over immigration. There are all sorts of reasons to work on the concerns, many of them quite legitimate. But the occasional slip happens and the ugliness of ethnic and race hatred come to the surface.

  12. John-Julian...right. Thanks. I agree.

    and yet,

    Justin Lewis-Anthony...any time you want four minutes you get it. It is the perfect storm that is the problem I was muttering about, and the ABC contributed to it, but the seeds were in the turbulent past and hatreds not dealt with.

    Oriscus points us to http://3minutetheologian.org.uk/blog/2008/02/08/the-archbishop-and-those-who-will-not-hear/

  13. The Archbishop is taking a pounding. My fear is that the pounding is not coming because of possible remarks supporting Islamic laws that might or might not make their way into the society, but because across the board, his support of Semites is the problem.

    I believe your fear is unfounded. When I first read your words, I thought that *you* might have gone 'round the bend! Your comments seem to miss completely the "populist" nature of the uproar in the U.K., in which the average citizens (not the clerics, academics or politicians) are shouting from the rooftops, "enough is enough"! Those who choose not to listen, do so at their peril, it seems to me.

    I wonder if the people also are saying "enough is enough" not only to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but to the Church of England, and possibly to organized religion in general. They have simply had it (which I can relate to) with radical clerics of all stripes, including Rowan Williams, telling them what will be "unavoidable."

  14. "I'm getting very fed up with this criticism of the Archbishop that he was pastorally insensitive to his audience. "

    Fr. John-Julian anticipated a comment on this whole event that I am considering. My working title is "tone deaf."

    I don't think the archbishop is insensitive. But consider the defense offered here:
    " He made a speech which majored on jurisprudence to an audience of jurists!"

    How long do you have to be an archbishop in a State church before you figure out that there are no venues where the press and public can be ignored? Being the ABC is like any other cabinet level position in either England or the US -- you are always "on."

    Were this the first PR disaster for Dr. Williams, it would be excusable. It isn't and it isn't. He needs to either empower or fire some staff.


  15. I think this commenter has described the U.K. situation quite well:

    "What this arch bishop does not understand is that religion is utterly irrelevant to the vast majority of people in this country. It plays no part whatsoever in their lives. The only reason younger people go to church is to get their children into a church school. This is a reflection of poor education provided by the state.

    "Locked in his weird ivory tower, speaking on to other religionists, he has no idea of the utter loathing the majority have for this evil, vicious, violent, anti women, anti gay religion and how it is incideously creeping into the UK through uncontrolled immigration."

    To them (in my opinion), Rowan Williams looks like a doddering old fool, right out of Central Casting, who needs to be sent back to Oxford/Cambridge ASAP.

  16. I'm not sure Cantuar is either insensitive or tone deaf. I think he's naive.

    He has never quite grasped that he isn't an obscure Oxbridge lecturer or the marginal Primate of disestablished Wales any longer. He is the Primate of an established Church, Primate of a glocal Communion and a member of the Lords to boot.

    It's all very nice to say that he was talking about jurisprudence to jurists. The senior lawyers in Gordon Brown's Cabinet would not have been so naive.

    Any time Cantuar speaks in an open forum (ie, anything but an in camera meeting, and probably even then) he is speaking to the entire populace through the jaded and controversialist filter of reporters who want "constroversy" and don't care if the accent is on the first or second syllable.

    Ruth Gledhill, for all that she's stirring the pot, is right to argue that Cantuar needs a) better PR advice and b) to listen to the PR advice he gets.

  17. Exactly, sheila, it has to do with the treatment of women.


  18. Fr. Malcom,

    We agree on what he needs. Call it naive, or tone deaf it is still a failure to understand what happens when he speaks. His is a political office and he simply does not seem to get that.

    Of course, since this exchange began, he has also addressed the synod. And there we find another aspect. Eletism. We who bave no degrees from the 2 or 3 places he thinks important should not be blogging about our betters. I am amused to think what his reaction might be if he found out where some of us did our degrees.

    The worst of all worlds, a naive (whatever) person over dosed on the English cast system! No wonder he fails. And he does. Lambet wont even begin to reach the settlement or unity he seeks ( I fear ) and his willingness to sacrifice Jeffry John, Gene Robison and all the other good and decent people he discards to seek unity with the bullies will be his enduring legacy. ;;sigh;;

    So much promise, so little delivery.


  19. Mark, just a note to say I do take your point about "antisemitism". I agree that a major part of the subtext of this uproar is the perennial underlying anxiety about The Other, an anxiety which is not going away any time soon either in the US or the UK and desperately needs to be discussed.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.