There is nothing woolly-liberal about communitarianism

Matthew Parris considers the archbishop dangerous.

It is not useful, it is not even interesting, to begin an argument on whether Sharia should be given some kind of status within British law, unless you think there are otherwise potential conflicts…Unless, therefore, Dr Williams is proposing that elements of Sharia should be tolerated even though they appear to conflict with the general law, he is saying nothing interesting. They do conflict. And what happens when they do? The moment a private law appears to defy the general law, one question, and one alone, becomes central. It is the question of consent…Of group members, of course – and first – we must ask: is consent real, unanimous, complete? Is there duress? Is there undue influence? How about children? Who truly speaks for the group? What opportunities are offered to opt out?

And boy did the archbishop skate gracefully over that.

A religion, properly understood, makes profound claims on an individual and community, quite unlike the demands of a golf club. It involves the…subordination of the individual’s will; and may demand that he subordinate his spouse’s and children’s wills too. Hence our unease about duress, and the completeness of “consent”. Dr Williams, in a welter of words, makes no serious attempt to resolve this. Those who read his speech properly will see that his entire argument turns upon the freedom of the group member to “opt out” of the “supplementary jurisdiction” and choose British law instead. But repressive faith groups make it culturally difficult – sometimes well-nigh impossible – for a member to opt out.

Pre-cisely. He pretended he was taking consent into account without actually doing so. He simply waved at it as he skated past, he didn’t engage with it.

As Parris points out, this is not progressive or pc gone mad, it’s profoundly conservative.

Dr Williams’s ideas really represent the wilder fringes of a bigger idea: communitarianism. Communitarianism can come in a surplice, a yarmulka or from a minaret and is all the more dangerous because armed with a divine rather than a local loyalty. It almost always proves a repressive and reactionary force, fearful of competitors, often anti-science, sometimes sceptical of knowledge itself, and grudging towards the State. There is absolutely nothing “left-wing” or woolly-liberal about empowering it. A Britain in which Muslim communities policed themselves would be more ruthlessly policed, and probably more law-abiding than today. But it would be a Britain in which the individual Muslim – maybe female, maybe ambitious, maybe gay, maybe a religious doubter – would lose their chances of rescue from his or her family or community by the State.

A hell on earth, in short.

17 Responses to “There is nothing woolly-liberal about communitarianism”