Newsnight: Douglas Murray and Tariq Ramadan on shariah

Further to Archbishop Rowan Williams’ speech which, more carefully than you’d imagine from the explosive reactions, broached the idea of a legal market, Newsnight tonight was exclusively dedicated to the issue of shariah in Britain. This is symptomatic of one of the global issues of the day – how the West should address political Islam. I’m not sure why it is that after 30 minutes I still don’t know a single uncontested fact about shariah. The debate degenerated into an enormous ding dong and my heart sunk to see the Bishop of wherever entirely failing to take this into account and intervene. He just kept making his point that “the archbishop has been misunderstood” (translates to shutting his eyes, putting his fingers in his ears and going “La la la”).

According to Tariq Ramadan, there are no uncontested facts about shariah. I haven’t heard many people claim to be qualified to speak about shariah (as you might expect of a body of law). Even Rowan Williams says that shariah is ‘far beyond my competence’. Shariah, both god-given and open to interpretation – maybe this should reassure me but it makes me queasy. Isn’t it the case that only conservative, religious Muslims are proposing to entertain shariah? And doesn’t that bode ill for the range of interpretation itself? So, to grope my way to an opnion on this, informal shariah courts are fine by me (other than that they are as misguided as any religious arbitration) as long as they’re voluntary. I would even go so far as to say that if you are part of a religious community you may rely on them to keep your thing in order. But God is a figment, subject to the same hegemony as any other social or cultural phenomenon, and this should forestall shariah being taken any further as a viable alternative to secular law in the UK – notwithstanding that aspects of sharia law may be good, progressive additions to the body of UK law. I am happy to leave this to the experts, the law lords – and let them be diverse. All this, I think, positions me as a liberal reformist as far as religion’s concerned.

What is Tariq Ramadan doing on Newsnight? It seems reasonable, as many others have done in recent years, to take him as one of the less draconian representatives of political Islam (Islamism) and engage with his views accordingly. Rowan Williams refers to him approvingly. Certainly he’s not accountable for the acts of his grandad Hassan al-Banna, founder of the terror-mongering and violently repressive Muslim Brotherhood. Plus I have not read his books (Muslims in a Secular Environment, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, among others). He is infamous for, when confronted with the issue of stoning women for adultery, proposing a moratorium in order to have a debate about it – debate about whether we should stone women to death. There are some things you don’t debate, and one of those is whether or not to stone women to death. You don’t debate that, and it’s hard to avoid concluding that you should work as hard as you can to reduce the influence of anybody who tries to. As Paul Berman puts it, we ‘recoil also at the people who fail to recoil’ from the stoning to death of women. Ramadan doesn’t find it that simple:

“Personally,” he said, “I’m against capital punishment, not only in Muslim countries, but also in the U.S. But when you want to be heard in Muslim countries, when you are addressing religious issues, you can’t just say it has to stop. I think it has to stop. But you have to discuss it within the religious context. There are texts involved. I am not just talking to Muslims in Europe, but addressing the implementation of huddud everywhere, in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Middle East. And I’m speaking from the inside to Muslims. Speaking as an outsider would be counterproductive.

In its surrender to context, this is broadly the same argument as the Home Office made for their new lexicon on referring to acts of violence and terror in the name of Islam (see Dr Richard Jackson on this week’s Moral Maze). But in addition Ramadan seems to be saying that you have to be Muslim – his idea of the ‘insider’ – to evaluate this aspect (any aspect, by inference?) of Islam. This is a disquieting assertion.

Ramadan’s supporters call him the enlightened voice of Islam, a moderate, but I’d hope we – particularly women, non-Muslims, non-conformists and gay people – could do better. It certainly seems that Jews should look elsewhere for an advocate – particularly “French Jewish intellectuals” and people who think that the boycott of Israel – particularly the failure to congratulate Jews on the 60th anniversary of – you might look at it this way – their liberation from the sufferance of host-states which tried to kill them – is pretty dodgy on the whole. When he starts talking about Jews in this way, a way which would be acceptable in most Muslim countries, you become acutely conscious of a line where engagement with radical Muslims ends and appeasement begins.

I don’t think people should let political Islamists off the hook about the things they value that the Muslim world currently holds cheap. Similar to Nick Cohen getting Sean Matgamna in a headlock last year over Matgamna’s constant appeal to hitherto non-existent utopias as a substitute for evidence that communism remains a viable propostion, we need to challenge the idealised shariah with examples from its perverted present. The chilling thing is that Ramadan says his fiercest critics come not from the West but from Muslims who view him as anti-Islamic.

Ramadan was royally interrupted by Paxo on Newsnight, ostensibly a debate, and this will leave his supporters aggrieved and his detractors unsatisfied. Douglas Murray (Unit for Social Cohesion and Democratiya) was tumultuous in defence of shariah’s minorities – particularly women and non-Muslims (i.e. the majority of the population). Tariq Ramadan responded neither to defend women nor Jews but with the predictable ad hominem rejoinder that Murray was trying to whip up Islamophobia. Murray then reproached Williams for ‘roping in the Jews’ and rounded on Ramadan for antisemitism. I thought he did well – he made well-defined and important points about the rights of minorities which avoided essentialisation of Muslims. I’m pinning him up with Aunty Julius &tc. He was resplendently angry and I had a confusing reaction to that – something like relief and I woke Matt, who I was cuddling on the sofa, up by shouting at the TV. Hmm Flesh – a bit of repressed bile, maybe?

We learn from the Newsnight reportage that Shariah courts exist in Britain now. We learn from Murray that the Beth Din (Jewish) courts are informal and voluntary and are bad examples of William’s idea of a legal ‘marketplace’.We learn from Baroness Cox that Canada approved, and then rescinded shariah – and because shariah was so unacceptable to Canadians, Jewish and Catholic arbitration (which had been introduced to deal with a backlog of cases!) were sacked too. I didn’t know that.

To read – his books, particularly Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Paul Berman’s famous New Republic piece Who’s afraid of Tariq Ramadan is an important read (I haven’t yet) which examines Ramadan’s arguments about political Islam. Horowitz’s and Neyfakh’s New York Observer piece from last October on Ramadan, Berman, Buruma, Lilla and Judt, afterwards to get a sense of the responses. Buruma’s Tariq Ramadan has an Identity Issue in the New York Times is a more sympathetic piece. See also Bob From Brockley 1 and 2.


Shariah – maybe the question boils down to the difference between the universal principles of the Enlightenment as expressed in say the Euston Manifesto, and the religious idea of the eternal and absolute will of God.

Today I’ve been overtaken by a sense of a personal clash of civilisations – me and my mates v. the bad parts of Islam and the radical anti-capitalists – I’ve had the word ‘enemy’ in my brain all day and tonight’s Newsnight has it lodged even deeper. I can’t actually help it – this is how climates work. All I can do is acknowledge it and do what I can to re-balance. The main problem (and this is how the conspiracy theorists and the Clashers get you) is recognising when it is right and when wrong to name somebody or some group as your enemy, the better to oppose them.

Morrissey is on Jools Holland. I saw him last year at the Royal Festival Hall. He’s looking very well – magnificent. The drummer has a gong. Oh wonderful – he’s singing The Last of the Famous International Playboys and I’m caterwauling my duet. But his band is decked out in pink and grey uniforms and I reckon he also supervised their hairstyles. Sometimes I think Morrissey is naturally evil, actually.


3 thoughts on “Newsnight: Douglas Murray and Tariq Ramadan on shariah

  1. Tariq Ramadan is a hypocrite who’d be stoned for adultery if he lived in Iran (whose regime he defends in one of his books). I can’t understand why people take so much notice of him.

  2. I agree with professor ramadan and think that he, as always, delivered a clear and structured argument. Whereas Murray on the other hand, as always, delivered and uneducated superfluous arguement with no backing, he seems to have perfected the art of talking rubbish.

  3. Lili, I don’t think so. Besides, you can make a clear and structured argument for just about anything – you have to look at people’s premises. I want a single secular legal system, along with freedom of religious expression and sensitivity for all religions. We do pretty well in this country you know. The last thing I remember commending was the decision to recognise multiple wives in Muslim families as dependents. Controversial but a very progressive and understanding decision, I think.

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