The myth of English liberalism and the politics of bigotry

The current row over Rowan William’s remarks on sharia law and the British legal system is deeply saddening. Perhaps I should preface this by stating that I am not generally all that favourably inclined towards him as a church leader, though I have the deepest respect for his theological work – but it would take too long to explain that. Suffice it to say that he strikes me too much as an institutional apparatchik (no doubt he would see this differently – and in terms of ecclesiology). But he is an extraordinarily fine intellectual, and he strikes me as generally honest in his attempt to hold the Church of England together. (Again, one may differ in opinion as to whether that is important.)

But regardless of what one thinks of him, the hyped-up and hysterical reactions of sections of the media, politicians, the church, and the general public is appalling. It does not matter so much whether one actually agrees with what he said on the topic; and one wonders of course what kind of media advice he was given when it came to that Radio 4 interview that preceded his lecture on the topic. The point is, one would have thought, that he wanted to make a contribution to a debate, which is entirely within his remit. But that is where the mistake crept in: real debate, honest debate, is not desirable in this country, it would seem. Hardly anyone apparently bothers to read what he actually said – or perhaps the educational system in this country is now so bad that hardly anyone can read something that isn’t a transcript of ‘Big Brother’.

Several factors seem play into this hysteria:

Among the media, there seems to be a strong tendency to portray Williams as some kind of weird intellectual who cannot string a simple sentence together that people could understand. His commmitment to liturgical practice, ecclesiastical garb etc. which many no longer understand, isn’t helping here. There seems to be a strange mixture of anti-intellectualism, latent class conflict, and broad alienation from church practice in large sections of the media – as indeed the country in general.

The way the controversy was intially introduced on Radio 4 was extremely revealing. On the Thursday afternoon programme (7 February), if I recall correctly, the headlines began with a short line on what Williams had supposedly said, followed by predictably uninformed, populist reactions from politicians. There was then a short segement where the Radio 4 interviewer was himself interviewed, which gave us a little bit more of an idea what Williams was trying to say, but not much: the interviewer himself struck me as pretty clueless. And then to top it all, a “Sun” journalist (if that is the right word to use) was asked to comment, and proceeded to spew forth his usual bile. And this is what they call ‘news’ on the premier, supposedley liberal (whatever that means) BBC. Pathetic.

Sadly, within the church, this is just another welcome opportunity for conservatives to get Williams out of office. Shallow liberals seem to join conservatives in a bizarre kneejerk reaction. Strange bedfellows indeed.

But there is something even more troubling in the broader public reactions. A strong element of bigotry pervades this country, in particular in respect of muslims. There is so little communication, so little dialogue, so little interaction between different communities – it makes this country perfect fodder for the strategic objectives of the USA; ‘special relationship’ indeed. No wonder that British politicians, regardless of which of the three political parties they come from, tend to buy into this crap.

England, regardless of what people would like to see themselves as, has a substantial population that would appear to be just as bigoted as people in other places. Not worse, but no better than other countries. That should not surprise anyone: if you live long enough in different places, you realise that all people are, well, human. But it’s saddening nevertheless.

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