Disagreeing with the Archbishop : Part III

The row continues, though it has died down a bit. This controversy has been useful, both to bring out important issues in British public life in general, and also at a different level, contradictions in my own thought.

My issues first. I have always believed that religion is a private affair, and should have no role to play in public life. However, I have been privately religious, believed in God and had referred to certain 'inner voice' for dictating my actions. Accordingly, I believed that there should be no legal accommodation of private religious beliefs, and 'all citizens should be equal before the law'.

However, I must admit that Dr. Williams' comments and the consequent controversy allowed me to re-examine what I believed in, and to understand why I was wrong.

The first problem with my thinking was that the line between private/public life is non-existent in reality. When I allow my actions to be driven by a certain sense of religious ethic, it affects my public behaviour, and also expectations regarding behaviour of other people. I believe the key issue here is EXPECTATIONS REGARDING OTHER PEOPLE'S BEHAVIOUR - this is where private life overlaps public life, and it is impossible to keep religion out of public life altogether.

The second problem is that the religious beliefs are usually absolutist, rights and wrongs are usually clearly marked out. In this respect, Hindus probably have an advantage - they have a religion with a 'relative' sense of morality - there is nothing right and wrong, and everything depends on the context. So, despite having some religious law - Manu's, most famously - it is hardly practised and even rarely referred to. But in the context of absolute rights and wrongs, it is difficult to adjust to public code if it goes against the religious behaviour.

In fact, Dr. Williams' statement also focused my mind on another issue - it is always easy for a majority to talk about uniform civil code. In case of Hindu nationalists in India, for example. But civil code is based on underlying expectations of behaviour in society, and a civil code based on Protestant or Hindu behaviour may be inherently objectionable to others.

These are vexed issues, and there is no easy, or right, answer. I am sure British Law is exceptionally liberal and progressive. Only the other day, I heard from a Catholic citizen based in Northern Ireland why it was so much better to remain in the UK rather than being a part of Irish Republic, where women's rights were very limited because they followed Catholic code. I am sure Sharia Law may limit women's rights severely. These are points legal experts and policy-makers must debate and decide, and I am sure Dr. Williams did not suggest that these need not be debated or can be glossed over.

On the other side, Dr. Williams' comments brought out the inherent xenophobia of a declining civilization. The reaction - launched in the name of freedom - was actually based on an opposite principle: reaction. In this case, it was Dr. Williams, ironically talking about Sharia Law, was on the side of freedom and flexibility. The concerted criticism - some measured and rational [like, Financial Times, which called his views 'muddled', as they believed law isn't a franchise and there is not a market for law, but it is a state monopoly, but overlooked that the state isn't a monopoly of one sort of belief], some obscure and confusing [mostly from politicians, who covered both sides, Gordon Brown now praising Dr. Williams' 'Great Integrity' - how ironic!] and some openly xenophobic and full of hatred [some of those I quoted earlier] - showed the intolerant nature of modern Britain. It is this nature of disagreement - than the disagreement itself - poses the greatest threat to freedom in Britain.


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