Williams and strategy

We have a problem. We have a nation whose dealings with religion in general, and Islam in particular, are befuddled by dangerous myths and clumsy confusions. And there’s nothing cosily benign about that stupidity: there are walls built from it that nearly divide our society into ghettos.

We could, if we wanted, try to fight fire with fire: replace one set of lazy misapprehensions with another – trade slogan for slogan until we’re all bloodied from being beaten with placards. Heaven knows we’ve done this often enough, and will do it again soon enough.

Rowan Williams’ lecture was a risky attempt at a different kind of strategy. He tried to speak carefully and precisely about an electrically controversial issue, in the hope of getting some real conversation about it going.

We all know what happened next.

It worked.

Yes, there was a storm of angry protest, the scale of which was quite overwhelming. But there’s no way of getting public conversation about this going except by speaking in public – in a public that is largely unready for such a conversation. So that was inevitable and unavoidable, even if few would have predicted quite how intense it became.

But look again. Read the Weekend’s broadsheets. Listen to the news today. Look at online discussions. For every yard of vitriolic, dim-witted abuse, there’s an inch of serious comment on the issues Williams raised. Some of it is in varying degrees disagreement with the Archbishop, some in varying degrees of agreement. But quite a lot of it is intelligent, quite a lot well-informed. Given ten seconds of searching across the media from the last four days, you’ll find any number explanations of the role that sharia plays in our legal system already; you’ll find any number of discussions of the place of religious communities in a secular state; you’ll find any number of discussions of religious law and human rights.

Job done.

Of course, things are never quite that simple. There are, of course, some qualifications and further questions that we need to discuss.

(1) Has the reaction to Williams’ speech also stoked Islamophobia (rather than bringing to public expression already existing Islamophobia)? That’s a very difficult question to answer, I think. But can you think of another way of getting the serious public debate about these issues going that doesn’t risk pushing that button? Try imagine what would have happened if it had not been the Archbishop of Canterbury, but a coalition of prominent, moderate Muslims who had tried to get the debate going. Would that have gone more smoothly?

(2) Has the reaction to Williams’ speech damaged relationships in the Anglican communion at a sensitive time? Maybe – though, again, I have my doubts about whether it will have cooled relationships that weren’t already pretty cool. But in any case, can you foresee a time, any time soon, when the Anglican Communion is going to be in such a state of robust bonhomie that a debate like this would run smoothly? And might one be forgiven for thinking that the relationship of large Western democracies to Islam is quite an urgent and important issue – perhaps even as important as what the Anglican Communion does about sexuality?

(3) Has the reaction to his words done damage to Williams’ own reputation? Quite probably. But, quite frankly, who cares? He is not (or at least should not be) in the PR business. He has no business trying to preserve his own reputation for its own sake. Yes, ask the other questions – about damage to the welfare of British Muslims, about damage to the Anglican Communion – but getting vilified is, on its own, not in Christian terms any kind of mark of failure.

Only time will tell, of course, whether the Archbishop’s gamble has actually paid off – and even then, we’ll never really know how the ripples that spread from his speech have affected the way things have gone. But please forgive me if, on current evidence, I don’t join the chorus of those who think his speech and interview were obviously unwise, or obviously naive, or obviously misguided, or obviously insensitive. Yes, it could probably have been clearer – but not by much; he’s challenged everyone who is listening to raise their game, and you don’t do that by spouting easily grasped platitudes.

An additional note on easy narratives

Should any tired journalist visit this page, and wish for some ideas for ready copy, can I suggest two simple narratives that will make your job easier? Neither of them is true, of course, but each can be made superficially plausible.

The first is the story that the Archbishop is a head-in-the-clouds academic, with no real grounding in the real world – and that this lecture is the latest in a series of blunders that could only be made by someone almost terminally naive. Accompany this by pictures that emphasise his eyebrows, and you have the makings of a convincing article. If you’re careful, you can make it sound like he’s been stuck in some academic cloister all his life, and has only emerged blinking into public in the last five minutes. You’ll have to brush over the fact that he’s exercised rather a lot of pastoral ministry, responding to quite an impressive range of quite-real-enough-thank-you circumstances, and you’ll also do best not to mention how long he’s spent handling eye-watering arguments across the Anglican Communion that involve some of the most fractious and wilful antagonists you could hope to find – but just use the words ‘ivory tower’ a couple of times and your job will be done.

The second, rather similar, is the story that the Archbishop naively assumes the world to be stocked with ‘people of good will’ who will be reasonable if we speak to them nicely – and that he’s rather charmingly surprised when people turn out to be quite as wilfully unpleasant and selfish as they normally are. You’ll have to hide the fact that few contemporary theologians have as dark a view as he does of human beings’ ability destructively to deceive themselves – but people are always prepared to swallow a ‘genial vicar’ stereotype, so you should get away with it.

One Thought on “Williams and strategy

  1. Ah, so you got annoyed by that comment piece (I think it called itself “analysis”) in the Guardian as well…

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