Prisoners of faith

February 10, 2008 at 8:47 pm | Posted in The God Delusion | 2 Comments

So here’s a no-brainer for you. You’ve got two contentious characters: one is a slobbering superstition-spewer currently serving seven years in prison (and many more once extradited to the U.S.) for inciting murder and racial hatred at the behest of his imagined God; the other is a cerebral and mild-mannered Archbishop with no criminal record, but a similar tendency to make the heathens among us roll our eyes in derision. But who, the Daily Mail asks, “poses the bigger threat to Britain’s way of life?” Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury? Or Abu Hamza, the fanatic from Finsbury Park? If your answer was the latter, you would not only be wrong, but should also be considered a candidate for 90-day detention. Here’s how the Mail’s more enlightened online readership voted, as of this afternoon:

Which of these men poses the bigger threat to Britain’s way of life?

1 Abu Hamza


2 Archbishop of Canterbury


So what offense did the Archbishop commit to become the Mail’s new poster boy for Britain’s irreversible decline? Well, he kinda suggested that Sharia law is unavoidable and that if we want to save ourselves from being incinerated on buses, trains or other crowded public places, we should hurry up and make nice with those who would stone homosexuals, smother their womenfolk with veils and kill apostates using whichever medieval torture implement is closest to hand.

Of course, that’s not actually what he said. His argument was far more thoughtful and nuanced and was interested solely in preventing practicing Muslims of all shades from being further alienated from British society. Trouble is, of those British citizens who actually read newspapers, many of them only read those that fuel the most reactionary, divisive and toxic rhetoric in British society, and even then most people only manage the first few paragraphs before being distracted by something about Diana or house prices or which inebriated celebrity has stopped wearing underwear. Even if these rags were to temporarily practice journalism and point out that the Archbishop wasn’t calling for the complete Islamisation of Britain and our courts are already happy to accept some form of Sharia arbitration, when voluntarily sought, in the case of divorce proceedings, would there be much chance that these facts would reach anyone when buried under a headline such as this?

But it wasn’t just an inflammatory thing to say. It was also dead wrong, and proof of why religious figures should never be allowed anywhere near public policy making. If I could make a shopping list of proposals that would never be implemented (for that is all Mr Williams’ spiel will ever amount to), but could effect a genuine improvement on the apparent isolation of British Muslims from the rest of society, here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. A massive investment in social housing that aims to be genuinely multi-racial, multi-ethnic and (oh, if only there was a God to forgive me) multicultural.
  2. Having a Press Complaints Commission with actual teeth, slapping down any right-wing tribune that seeks to portray British Muslims as fanatical would-be terrorists who want the name of every town and city to end in ‘istan’.
  3. Achieve as quick and bloodless an exit from Iraq and Afghanistan as is possible without handing over the reigns to the would-be religious authoritarians who pray that our exit will allow them to seize control and make the Taliban look like the government of Sweden.
  4. Ban the disastrous apartheid that is religious schooling
  5. Abolish blasphemy laws.
  6. Remove any links between the Church of England and the state. A truly secular country cannot have a monarch as both head of state and symbolic head of a church.

It is, without question, a shopping list for the strengthening of secularism, but that’s because I’m a secularist. Of the proposals on this list, Rowan Williams doesn’t have any kind of power to achieve the first three, and it’s directly against his interest to campaign for the latter three. Absent of any other ideas for how this supposed gulf between British Muslims and the rest of us can be mended, he opted for more religious input into our legal proceedings, because as a religious man, that’s all he really understands. A prisoner of faith if ever there was one.

 By the way, the words ‘prisoner of faith’ were coined by Abu Hamza’s lawyer when speaking for his client in the aftermath of his conviction. Even the fanatics amongst us can speak truth every once in a while.



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  1. […] include Johann Hari near the top. In an article for today’s Independent, Johann takes aim at Rowan Williams’ Sharia bumbling by pointing out some stark consequences of having a religious system mashed into our own […]

  2. […] secularists) for the disestablishment of the Church of England. Whilst it’s been mentioned elsewhere, I hadn’t seen it advocated by a mainstream commentator until today. In the case of Andrew […]

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