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Rowan Williams

  • "Them brown people"

    e6c65f44623212251d4ad71b1a2a2f33.jpg...Are all "bombers", according to a foolish seven year old in Holmfirth in Yorkshire. A woman of Pakistani origin, enjoying life with her mainly white neighbours, described hearing this said of her five year old by a stranger's child. It was soon after the July bombings in London. Can you blame her for moving from 'Last of the Summer Wine' country to urban Dewsbury?

    Her voice is among many in an excellent series of programmes about Pakistan this week on Radio 4.

    On Woman's Hour, an audience at Huddersfield University was in the main Pakistani. Most identified as British, but several wanted to know what had happened to 'British values'. Not just queuing and politeness, but tolerance and understanding.

    Archbishop Rowan Williams has not seen much of that, after delivering a closely argued and liberal-minded talk on Islam and the British legal system. It was scheduled to be given in the ancient church of the crusading Knights Templar.

    Williams begins by recognising a reallity - that sharia courts are operating in the UK now - and aligns Islam with other faiths such as Judaism that make rules for their followers that go beyond state law. Crucially he doesn't address the practicalities. What happens when religious law is in direct conflict with state law, as it would be if British sharia courts ever promoted the kind of sharia seen in Saudi Arabia? He blithely assumes people will be able to walk away from religious courts if they don't like them.

    Bearded Asian men and wearers of the veil talked on Radio 4 about being stigmatised as religious extremists and potential terrorists. "Not everyone who wears a head-scarf is a potential Al-Qaeda member!" Young British Muslim women of Pakistani origin described how they walk a dizzying tightrope of mixed identities.

    In spite of the support of the Bishop of Oxford, a mosque in Oxford is this week reviewing a non-Muslim's proposal to play the call to prayer to a  community that is not predominantly Muslim. The mosque's shortwave radio call to prayer is currently used by just 100 people. Many furious local objectors resent any form of religion proselytising to them.

    The Royal United Services Institute condemn Britain's 'misplaced' policies on immigration and multiculturalism, creating opportunities for terrorists: "The UK presents itself as a target, as a fragmenting, post-Christian society". Sir Trevor Phillips, Head of the Commission for Racial Equality has been warning for years of the dangers of segregated communities. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen defends liberty as more important than multiculturalism "the demands of cultural freedom include... resisting the automatic endorsement of past traditions"

    b473e63d76052f879b8b166f5d069230.pngLiberty's torch burns less brightly these days in the land of the free. The 'crusading' George W Bush this week used the July bombings as a justification for 'water-boarding' torture. Identity cards and incarceration without trial spark the fear that something similar is happening here.

    The racist five year old in Holmfirth spoke from ignorance, because he had never met his Asian neighbours. In Huddersfield, Pakistani people complained that catchment area rules were preventing them from integrating their children with the children of non-Asians.

    Freedom, religion and difference are hot topics - and for good reason. If ever there was a good time for British people of every race and religion to get together to decide what really matters to us - and what kind of society we want for the future - it is now.