Distorted Outlook on the Archbishop’s Speech

On 12 February 2008 the BBC World Service “Outlook”
news magazine programme devoted some fifteen minutes to a report on the reactions in Britain to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech the previous week in which he had advocated incorporating certain aspects of less contentious Sharia law (relating to civil matters such as marriage and divorce) into the British legal system. Notoriously, quite what he was advocating was by no means clear – Dr Rowan Williams himself later acknowledged elements of “unclarity” in his speech, and of “clumsily deployed” words.

Now there is no doubt that much of the response to the Archbishop’s speech was based on a knee-jerk reaction to the more unpleasant aspects of Sharia law advocated by extreme Muslim groups (and practised in countries governed under Islamic law), which Dr Williams was of course careful to make clear he found abhorrent. However, among the clamour could be found cooler voices that pointed out that there were serious objections to the Archbishop’s suggestions even in their least contentious interpretation. These were rooted in the realities of most Muslim organisations, specifically that they are almost entirely male dominated, and the fact that Sharia, as a generality, tends to favour men’s preferences over women’s. This negative side to the proposals floated by the Archbishop was highlighted by several people, including Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and
Johann Hari in The Independent. These concerns were summed up by the Government advisor on Muslim women, Shaista Gohir, who stated:

Although Islam gives women numerous Islamic rights, many Muslim women would fear discrimination due to patriarchal and cultural reasons. Muslims, particularly women, may be pressurised by families and communities into using Sharia courts.

Now you might have thought that a BBC programme purportedly reporting to the world the reactions to the Archbishop’s speech would have noted the reasoned concern about his proposals, as well as highlighting the less rational reactions that proliferated in the press. If so, you would have been wrong.

There were essentially three sections in the programme. The BBC religious affairs correspondent, Frances Harrison, was first asked by the presenter to report the reactions to the Archbishop’s proposals (and was later asked to add concluding words). This was followed by a Muslim woman, Aisha Begum, who the presenter told us was “grateful for the existence of British Sharia councils”, and recounted her satisfactory experience of obtaining an Islamic divorce, after which Dr Suhaib Hasan, secretary of the UK’s Islamic Sharia Council, answered questions from the presenter on the workings of such councils in Britain.

The introductory report by Frances Harrison is reproduced here, so readers can see for themselves its one-sidedness:

Presenter: So why the huge reaction? Here’s our religious affairs correspondent, Frances Harrison:


I think it has played into all the current fears about Islam. When people talk about Sharia law here they think of women being stoned to death, people being beheaded, and hands chopped off, although Dr Rowan Williams was very careful in his speech to say that these sort of inhumane extreme punishments were obviously not something he was propagating in any sense at all. His speech is very cautious, very careful to define exactly what he means, and he says that just because there’s this fear of Sharia law you shouldn’t assume that Islamic law, or parts of it, are not compatible with democracy or democratic values and human rights. But it has played into this sort of media frenzy, which I think really comes after the July bombings, the 7/7 bombings, and the 9/11 bombings, this fear of the ‘Other’, this fear of Muslims, it’s played into that, and people have seized on the some of the more out of context remarks and made a lot of them and not really looked at his remarks in context.

Note that, in addition to her complete failure to so much as hint at the more considered responses to the Archbishop’s speech, so anxious was Harrison to present as negative a view of the reactions as possible that she even stated that he was “very careful to define exactly what he means”, which, while true in relation to the aspects of Sharia to which he was referring, was certainly not the case as far as his proposals were concerned, as commentators of all views (including the Archbishop himself!) almost unanimously observed.

The account of the workings of the Sharia courts in Britain provided by Dr Suhaib Hasan, not unexpectedly, gave an impression of non-contentious application of Sharia in relation to marriage and divorce. Not once did the presenter raise with him the concerns expressed by Muslims less enamoured of the system such as those cited above, and by other less prominent individuals. Nor would listeners have the least idea of the kind of views held by Dr Hasan, of which here are some less palatable ones:

Even though cutting off the hands and feet, or flogging the drunkard and fornicator, seem to be very abhorrent, once they are implemented, they become a deterrent for the whole society. This is why in Saudi Arabia, for example, where these measures are implemented, the crime rate is very, very, low.


If sharia law is implemented, then you can turn this country into a haven of peace because once a thief’s hand is cut off nobody is going to steal. Once, just only once, if an adulterer is stoned nobody is going to commit this crime at all. We want to offer it to the British society. If they accept it, it is for their good and if they don’t accept it they’ll need more and more prisons.

The significance of the above words is not that they indicate that Dr Hasan currently advocates that such measures should be incorporated into British law (he doesn’t), but that the entirely positive account of British Sharia councils from someone who holds such primitive views should have been meekly accepted by the presenter of “Outlook” without the slightest attempt to suggest there might be any negative aspects to their workings.

A similar criticism may be made in relation to the contribution of Aisha Begum. No doubt many women who wish to adhere to Islamic codes do obtain what they regard as an entirely satisfactory resolution of their problems by Sharia courts. But not once on the programme was there the least indication that this is by no means always the case, that in the words of the Government’s advisor on Muslim women already cited, there may be “discrimination due to patriarchal and cultural reasons”, and that “particularly women may be pressurised by families and communities into using Sharia courts”.

Finally we come to Frances Harrison’s summing up:

I think it makes it very difficult in a way to have a reasoned rational discussion about Sharia law. I think, you know, one of the things that the Archbishop quoted was renowned scholar Tariq Ramadan, who said that the idea of Sharia calls up the darkest images of Islam, and it’s reached an extent where even many Muslim intellectuals don’t dare to refer to it for the fear of frightening people. So, you know, this may actually close off rational debate about this issue, it may lead to greater alienation of Muslims, who say, when we raise these issues you won’t listen to us, but there’s the head of the Church of England, and look what reaction he gets, what’s going to happen to us if we start discussing these sorts of problems. And I think there’s a real fear among Muslims in Britain that this will lead to more Islamophobia not less, and of course that was not the intention of the Archbishop, he basically wrote a speech which showed great respect for all religions, amongst them Islam, and for people who want to live a religious life within a secular legal code.

Presenter: So a positive message may have in the long run negative implications for the various Muslim communities in this country.


I think already the Muslim communities in Britain, the Muslims I’ve talked to, feel a great sense of alienation, socially, yes, there are pockets of extreme deprivation for Muslims, they do academically worse in many areas, in terms of employment, in terms of housing, so there are real problems there that need to be addressed, a staggering number of the prison population is Muslim in this country already. So those are problems, but I think just in terms of their perception, this idea that if you’re a Muslim, if you wear a headscarf, you’re a terrorist, this is what people talk about, that they don’t feel they have that kind of freedom here that they used to have and that things have become much more difficult for them, and they point to the media, and I think, you know, this is a case in point, that they will say, the media is anti-Muslim, it stirs up frenzy, it takes things out of context, it suggests that all Muslims are extreme and I think they would look at this controversy that we are experiencing now as part of that anti-Muslim media bias that certainly British Muslims talk about a great deal.

The best way one can sum up the contributions of Frances Harrison is that she played the role of an advocate on behalf of disgruntled Muslims. Certainly a representative of the Muslim Council of Britain could hardly
have done a better job from their point of view – except that even they
would probably not gone as far as the more extreme assertions here. Note that in the course of her tendentiously simplistic account of the tribulations that beset Muslims in the UK she treats alleged perceptions as if they constituted facts – and even conveys to her worldwide listeners the absurd impression that if a Muslim in Britain wears a headscarf she is regarded as a terrorist. If we take her account of Muslim “perceptions” as reasonably accurate in relation to some sections of the population (she gives no idea which “Muslims” she has “talked to”, giving the impression that these are the views of virtually all Muslims), presumably we should also take seriously the evident perception of nearly half of British Muslims that Jews “are in league with the Freemasons to control the media and politics”. But given that we don’t, why should the perceptions cited by Harrison be taken, as she would have her listeners believe, as accurately representing the reality of Muslim experience in Britain?

On hearing this resolutely one-sidedly negative view of Britain conveyed by the BBC to a world audience, I felt impelled to write a letter of complaint to the Editor of “Outlook”, Gavin Poncia, outlining my concerns indicated above. In his response Mr Poncia first briefly outlined what was in the programme. He then told me that it was not the intention to debate the rights and wrongs of Sharia as practised around the world, and followed this by assuring me that “we at Outlook” take impartiality very seriously, and that, on the question of balance, they have in the past included many less positive experiences of Sharia law. (The latter obviously outside the UK.)

Now of course none of this actually addressed my specific complaints, so I responded by reiterating that the programme gave a completely one-sided account of the responses to the Archbishop’s speech, failed to provide alternative views such as I had cited of the workings of Sharia currently in Britain, and that the complacent account of Sharia councils by someone with a background like that of Dr Suhaib Hasan was allowed to stand without the slightest questioning.

In his second response Mr Poncia again irrelevantly stated that Outlook was not the arena for a detailed discussion of Sharia law, and that the choice of speakers indicated that it was the place for personal stories and testimonies. Although he cited my complaint that Frances Harrison’s account was one-sided, he failed to address it, writing instead about the fact that she had alluded to “inhuman extreme punishments” of Sharia. This, of course, was again a straw man, since my complaint was about the one-sided treatment of the responses to the Archbishop’s speech, and (in relation to the rest of the programme), of the workings of Sharia currently in Britain. He continued in the same vein, noting that Outlook had in the past provided negative reports on the unjust treatment of women in parts of the world under fundamentalist Islamic law. He then commented on the choice of Muslim speakers, once again completely evading my point about the exclusively one-sided viewpoints provided and the failure of the presenter to ask probing questions. The only concession Mr Poncia made was that they failed to challenge Dr Hasan on the more extreme punishments of Sharia, something yet again irrelevant to my complaint. (My citing Dr Hasan’s views on this was solely in the context of the presenter’s unquestioning acceptance of Dr Hasan’s report of the workings of Sharia in Britain.)

In short, Mr Poncia’s second response displayed the same failure to address my actual complaints as his first, a point I made in my next message to him. This elicited a short response the gist of which was that he had tried to reply to my criticisms as directly as he could, that he and his team would bear them in mind, and that he was sorry that I found his explanations unsatisfactory.

I can only explain the dismal failure of this edition of “Outlook” to live up to the “impartiality” that Mr Poncia claims he takes seriously (though in fact the issue here is more precisely that of accuracy in the reporting of events) by assuming that he has a mindset that makes him oblivious to his presuppositions, and the extent to which they influence his editorship of programmes on certain issues such as the one in question. Equally worrying is his evident obliviousness to the fact that the unrelentingly negative portrayal of Muslim experience in Britain by the religious affairs correspondent can only have a detrimental effect on outside perceptions of the UK in a geo-political climate that can be literally incendiary.

Allen Esterson’s website is here.

Posted April 4 2008

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