We’ve been on a bit of a learning curve as a nation over the last few days, it seems to me.
On Thursday the headlines screamed “Archbishop of Canterbury says Sharia Law in UK is unavoidable”. The immediate image this conjures up - and was presumably meant to, by the headline-writers - was of a thousand years of English Law being swept aside for gratuitous beheadings and cuttings off of hands: Magna Carta out, Abu Hamza in.
It must be said that a second’s thought by anyone intelligent would have suggested that it was unlikely this was what the Archbishop of Canterbury was really suggesting - I think most people think he may be a bit academic, mystic and generally incomprehensible, but not completely barking.
But some of the reaction does seem to have been attacking just such a straightforward claim, whether that’s because they honestly thought that’s what he’d said, or because, one suspects, they wished to use it to make certain points for their own reasons.
But anyway, at the very simple level of taking those first headlines at face value, this was not a suggestion that anyone wished to support.
But as the debate has gone on over the few days, since, and more sensible things have been written about this, things have moved on, and it seems to me not least because we have all learned quite a lot.
We have discovered, for those of us who needed to, that Sharia Law, is funnily enough not mostly about barbaric mediaeval punishments, but rather a way of living your life according to Muslim principles, mostly covering the rather more mundane elements of life.
And perhaps more importantly, we have learned that religious-based systems of private law, including for example the Jewish Beth Din, and Sharia itself, are used reasonably widely in the UK already (whether that’s a good thing or not, it’s a fact).
The Court of Appeal is due this week, in fact, to judge on a question of the precise way in a decision made under Sharia, relates to English Law - an example quoted by Rowan Williams in his original speech.
In this context the comment so widely taken exception to, that the incorporation of Sharia law in the UK seems unavoidable, seems not only thoroughly unremarkable, but in fact positively behind the times!
Once a lot of this has sunk in, the row seems to be dying down and my guess would be that tomorrow morning’s papers’ reports of today’s session of the Church of England General Synod, will be its last major appearance in the media. The archbishop’s resignation, for which there were calls over the weekend, is now fairly clearly the entirely unrealistic prospect that it in fact always was.
So as the furore dies away, three things arising from it seem of interest to me.
Firstly, right from the beginning of the row, irrespective of how far and fast politicians were acting to distance themselves from the perceived import of the original comment, they were going very well out of their way, to express their sincere personal respect and admiration for Dr Williams. Nick Clegg’s comment was typical, and today apparently Mr Brown has “praised his great integrity”.
It is not normal for politicians taking an opposing view to pause first to compliment their antagonist, even when it is a relatively neutral non-political figure. It is quite striking that leading figures in public life really do seem to respect Rowan Williams very highly.
Secondly, the thoroughly premature and excitable calls for Williams to resign, are a reminder of the considerable tensions that there are within the Church of England (and even within the UK, let alone internationally in the broader Anglican Communion). The calls came, by and large, from people who never really wanted him to be Archbishop of Canterbury in the first place - and so in fact were more akin to the leader of the opposition calling for the Prime Minister to resign, than the displays of growing dissatisfaction that some would like to have seen them as. And George Carey seems in danger of getting himself a reputation as a member of the Thatcher school of being an ex-leader.
And finally and most of all, the role of the media in this has been fascinating. It was the media’s take on it originally which inflamed the situation. This is perhaps inevitable - in fact the speech from which all this flowed starting by discussing the near-impossibility of even using the word “Sharia” in the British media without generating hysteria.
The row of the last few days clearly reinforces this claim.
But I do wonder if in the end Dr Williams may not end up achieving some of his original aim: it is striking that today he is firm that whatever else he may have got wrong, he does not regret seeking to shed greater light on Sharia. And certainly one of out the outcomes from the last few days will be a wider understanding in Britain of both what Sharia law actually is, and how widely it is already used here. Whether it is the dominant recollection people come to have of this episode, remains to be seen.
There certainly is something wrong in the British media’s inability to discuss almost any issue, particularly important ones, with any degree whatsoever of sophistication or nuance. I’d like to think that the learning experience of the last few days may show that that can be turned round, though I am not very hopeful.
But it certainly has been a learning experience. I just hope we learned something about our media, as well as about Islam.