UK Scholars Discuss Religion & State Issues in Today's Britain

McCrea with audience member
McCrea with audience member
September 24, 2013

Professor Maleiha Malik (King’s College London) and Professor Ronan McCrea (University College of London) joined the Anglo-American Studies Program on September 19th at the IGS Library to discuss "Religion and the State in Today’s Britain." Professor Ron Hassner (UC Berkeley) was the moderator.

Professor Malik provided a broad overview of many of the recent British court rulings involving religious freedom. In her talk, she gave special attention to how the Muslim (Shariah) Law Councils work in the UK, and recommended that the British Courts take into consideration the Muslim Law Council’s rulings through a process she calls cultural voluntarism.  While considering the rights and cultural norms of Muslims when making its own decisions, the British court system also needs to be alert to the abuse of  “minorities within a minority,” such as women, the young, the elderly, and gays and lesbians, who may be especially vulnerable. The British courts need to intervene when such abuses occur.

Professor McCrea began his remarks by outlining key differences with Professor Malik’s cultural voluntarism.  He recommended that the Muslim Law Councils have no role in the British court system. Professor McCrea worries that if the courts make exceptions for Muslim cultural norms, then British law will be overwhelmed by special cases and will cease to be generalizable to the British population. 

Professor McCrea drew many interesting comparisons between the US and the UK. The UK, he argued, is a religious state on paper, but a secular state in reality. In contrast, the US formally separates religion and state on paper, but in reality, it is a much more religious state than Britain. When the media asked Tony Blair if he had prayed with George W. Bush before the Iraq War, Blair flatly denied it.  Blair’s spokesman noted that politicians in Europe usually "don’t do God."

Building on this point, Professor McCrea contended that the increasing prominence of muscular religious minorities have made Great Britain and other European countries more secular, not less. Britain, along with other European countries, are shedding their religious connections and affiliations.  For example, in 2008, the UK formally abolished its religious blasphemy laws following an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by a Christian organization against the BBC for airing Jerry Springer: The Opera. As the UK’s religious minorities grow in number, McCrea predicts that the British state will continue to become more secular. 

The Anglo-American Studies Program, founded at IGS in 2012, aims to widen and deepen campus interest and knowledge of British affairs and their implications for the United States.