Rowan Willams: Right on the Money, Wrong on the Message

It always seems strange to me that even in an increasingly secular society the words and opinions of religious leaders retain such a unique impact.

I would attribute to senior clerics a purely ethical desire to speak the truth were I not as versed as I am in the reality that they too are politicians, playing to a slightly broader constituency with a very slightly different agenda.

Religious leaders are almost as well schooled in the impact of effective messaging as politicians are these days and despite the bookish, academic approach of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, one can rest assured that some effort went into weighing and measuring his words prior to delivery.

In a sense it doesn’t really matter what the Archbishop of Canterbury believes and, in every sense, he is entitled to his opinion.

What is perhaps more important and more instructive in terms of the state of the nation, is the reaction his words have received. I suspect the fury of the reaction was inspired by a soupy mix, part willing ignorance, part real ignorance, all sprinkled with a healthy dose of Anglo-Saxon suspicion.

What is undeniable is that Rowan Williams is not the first high profile figure to make the point that Shariah law is, and will, increasingly become a fact of life in the UK and beyond. Indeed, some, as I will demonstrate, have welcomed it with open arms.

The difference lies only in the method of communication. I said that clerics were almost as well versed as politicians in the art of messaging but, in that margin, is the gap between indifference and headline news.

On June 13 two years ago, Gordon Brown delivered a speech at the Islamic Finance and Trade Conference in London. He knew, as did anyone with a cursory knowledge of financial markets, that Islamic Banking meant big business. Islamic Banking simply means the provision of banking products and services, from bog-standard current accounts to Sovereign Fund activity, which are compliant to Shariah law.

All work-a-day stuff for a Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking at a conference and shedding a very benign light on something the markets already knew to be lucrative territory.

He started with the usual platitudes before launching the fusillade of statistics, a familiar modus operandi.