It’s tough being an Archbishop

I’ve always been an admirer of the Anglican Church, it tends to produce religious leaders who are dedicated to their faith and open and positive in their outlook. I’m a fan too of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who has offered religious perspectives to the public sphere.

It’s tough being an Archbishop though, not least because headlines run away from you. There was a famous incident when the former Archbishop Rowan Williams made a perfectly ordinary and unremarkable statement about sharia, and things went ballistic.

A less extreme example has happened recently. The Archbishop Welby said the following during a speech in Paris:

This requires a move away from the argument that has become increasingly popular, which is to say that ISIS is ‘nothing to do with Islam’, or that Christian militia in the Central African Republic are nothing to do with Christianity, or Hindu nationalist persecution of Christians in South India is nothing to do with Hinduism. Until religious leaders stand up and take responsibility for the actions of those who do things in the name of their religion, we will see no resolution.

So here is how it was reported. ‘Archbishop warns Islam to accept Islamic State is based on religion’ by Premier, ‘Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby slams ISIS apologists who say group are not Islamic — as he demands religious leaders ‘take responsibility’ for terror fanatics’ crimes’ by The Sun, picked up by The Telegraph and the Mail Online too. It went down very well with Robert Spencer too over at Jihad Watch.

The headlines might sound familiar, since a similar flurry happened when Aaqil Ahmed, head of religion at the BBC, said something similar, or when Shadi Hamid argued the same over in the US.

Few media outlets picked up on Archbishop Welby’s points about religions in general taking ownership for co-religionists.

There are three intertwined issues here with this storm in a teacup.

  1. Who says Isis has nothing to do with Islam?

I’ve struggled to find any public Muslim intellectuals saying “Isis has nothing to do with Islam”. Joe Biden is the biggest name I’ve found saying it. It’s possible the Archbishop was throwing a bit of a intra-faith shade on Pope Francis’ comments, it would be good if he could do that without putting Muslims in the firing line too.

Now, of course, I’ve heard people use the phrase “Isis has nothing to do with Islam”. Usually by those for whom either a) English isn’t their first language, or b) aren’t intellectuals, scholars, or academics. It’s a shorthand, like “Islam is a religion of peace”, used by laymen to try and express something important to them — that the religion they practice, the ethics they follow, and the teachings they hold dear are all distinct from the actions of terrorists and extremists. And of course, the language is copied by non-Muslims who equally are trying to distinguish what they know to be seperate (i.e. the majority of Muslims, and the violent fringe).

There are better ways to express these sentiments, sure, but there is a bizarre expectation society at large has that an ordinary Muslim off the street will somehow be able to articulately express their thoughts on complex issues such as the Islamic State in the Middle-East.

Also, it’s worth noting, saying “the Islamic State are not Islamic” or “religion is not a primary factor in radicalisation” are not the same thing as saying “Isis has nothing to do with Islam”. The below thread by Mehdi Hasan fleshes things out a bit more for those interested.

2. Who is holding other faiths communally responsible?

I really appreciate that the Archbishop contextalised his statements about Isis and Islam with comments about Christianity. But, the context doesn’t quite help (as seen through the way it’s been reported).

See, the thing is, ordinary Christians walking down the street in Britain today are not going to be tarred with the same brush as Christian militias in the Central African Republic, or Trump’s repressive policies in the US, or Western bombs in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Pakistan, or the Bosnian genocide.

But Muslims on the streets of Europe or America or Australia do get associated with global extremism committed by Muslims.

So while I do appreciate that ABC Welby is trying to get it right with his comments, he still could do with phrasing them better. I do in fact agree with the Archbishop, all faith leaders — including Muslim faith leaders — do need to up the ante on tackling extremism. But the way the Archbishop expressed them, as shown through the headlines, just hammers home the issue of communal guilt of Muslims.

It’s a high standard I’m holding the Archbishop too, but it’s a standard I know he can meet. We’re living in some dark times, and all public figures need to make sure they choose their words wisely, in particular, politicians — and so I think it’s doubly important for faith leaders such as the Archbishop to get it right.