Saturday, March 03, 2007

Clarification on the "Shar'iya" bomb

Canon Kendall Harmon, proprietor of Titusonenine, has now made it quite clear to me and to his readers that "I have not been able to find the text of the legislation, but there is no way I could support it based on the way it sounds like it will be worded."

This is, of course, really, really good to hear, but I'm not at all surprised. I never for an instant thought that Canon Harmon thought this legislation was a good idea -- I feel I've gotten to know him over the last year or so that I've been lurking on his blog, and I can say with certainty that he is a good and decent man.

That said, now that he has a copy of the most recent version of the legislation (see here), I wonder if he can join me and others in explicitly declaring exactly what it is about the legislation that he doesn't like, and explicitly calling for Archbishop Akinola to withdraw his support for those sections of the bill that offend him (and which should offend the Archbishop).

Canon Harmon took some umbrage at my characterization of his position on the bill, and he has since corrected the record, as have I. But it's important that he understand what it was that I found so troubling about his statement to the Voice of America's Howard Lesser.

Bishop Martyn Minns of CANA, and rector of Truro Church, said in a public statement (March 4, 2006) that "I do NOT believe that criminalization is an appropriate response to those who understand themselves to be homosexuals. Resolution 1.10 from the Lambeth Conference in 1998 is a good summary of my convictions on this contentious issue."

Bishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Communion Network said (March 15, 2006) that "the proposed law sounds harsh to American ears."

These quotes are from statements in defense of Archbishop Akinola following a Washington Post Op-Ed (February 26, 2006) by Bishop John Bryson Chane (Diocese of Washington, DC), in which Bishop Chane quite accurately said:
... the Nigerian law has crossed the line in several important respects. Its most outrageous provision deals not with marriage but with "same-sex relationships" and prohibits essentially any public or private activity in any way related to homosexuality. It reads in part: "Publicity, procession and public show of same sex amorous relationship through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise are prohibited in Nigeria."

Any person involved in the "sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly" is subject to five years' imprisonment.

The archbishop's support for this law violates numerous Anglican Communion documents that call for a "listening process" involving gay Christians and their leaders. But his contempt for international agreements also extends to Articles 18-20 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which articulates the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, association and assembly.

As far as I can tell, Bishop Chane, Bishop Duncan, Bishop Minns, and Canon Harmon would all agree in principle with these words. If I am mistaken, I would like very much to be corrected. But my point is that there are certain principles at stake here, principles of honesty and decency, that both sides of the broader debate within the Anglican Communion on the subject of homosexuality should be able to agree upon.

If Chane's words from the above quote represent the views of all of these men, then none of them should have any difficulty stating as much in public.

Canon Harmon should have been able to say to the Voice of America's Howard Lesser (perhaps he did) that while he opposes the consecration of gay priests and bishops and the blessing of same-sex marriages, he also opposes any legislation that would put gay and lesbian Nigerians in prison for advocating on their own behalf, and he furthermore believes that Archbishop Akinola made a mistake by endorsing the legislation without qualification.

Instead, what we have heard from Bishop Minns, Bishop Duncan, Archbishop Akinola, and lately Canon Harmon amounts to quiet acquiescence to the "background" noise of Shar'iya in Nigeria. This is not a particularly brave position, and it shows a willingness to rationalize rather than clarify, and a desire to protect an ally rather than correct his error. It is also a specious position, given that there are Nigerian Muslims in both Houses who oppose the legislation. Thus, I was surprised and disturbed enough by Canon Harmon's words to blog on the fact that he appeared to have been the latest to drop the "Shar'iya" bomb.

Canon Harmon now has a copy of the latest version of the legislation. He knows it will soon pass, and he knows enough of its history to know the score. What say he?


Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for all the research you are doing on this very important issue.
One question: I don't understand how the fact that two (presumably) Muslim lawmakers spoke against this bill is strong evidence that "Sharia" concerns are fake. I doubt the Muslim community is monolithic, and I can also imagine situations in which even someone in favor of Sharia could be against the Bill. Could you further explain the inference you are making?
Also, are you saying that arguments about Sharia are just a canard? (That's a pretty strong statement unless the evidence supporting it is ironclad.) Thanks.


Matt said...

James -- thanks for your excellent point. I want to discuss this further with you, but it'll have to wait until later Sunday. Suffice it to say, for now, that you're right, I'm making too strong a statement. But I think we can find some middle ground where it all makes sense.

Matt said...

James -- I think that for me to say that Shar'iya is not a concern would be folly. It is a serious concern, and I have said so elsewhere.

However, I have also maintained that the legislation is itself a face-saving measure for the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). By coming out strongly against homosexuality in Nigeria, they show their Muslim co-religionists that they are nothing like TEC.

This all made sense to me (in a political sort of way) until I heard that there are legislators in the Federal Assembly with Muslim names and from Muslim states who do not wish to support the legislation. This shows that there are some within Nigerian Islam who are capable of weighing the balance between the need to stop gay marriage in Nigeria, and the need to maintain democratic process.

So, if there is widespread concern about the anti-democratic nature of this legislation among Muslim legislators (and there appears to be given the lobbying effort that has been engaged to convince Muslims to support it), then why can't the Church of Nigeria be similarly nuanced?

It is in this sense that I suggested that the "shar'iya" argument is specious.

I had always thought that those who even mentioned Shar'iya were essentially bowing to some sort of cultural blackmail -- that if they didn't throw their gay and lesbian neighbors under the bus, the Muslims were going to come and get 'em. I now see that even that threat is something that can be overcome by a shared commitment to democracy. In my view, Archbishop Akinola should build on that shared commitment, rather than cave to the demands of his spiritual competitors.

Ephraim Radner said...

Dear Matt,

Unlike some, I don’t have a problem with the single-minded way you have pursued this issue. It is an important one. While I don’t agree with everything you write on the topic, I believe that the credibility of Christian witness – and that obviously includes conservative Christians as much as anybody – demands some clear articulation of our duties to protect basic human rights and our willingness to fulfill these duties. In this case, as you know, I believe that these basic human rights, included in God’s own purposes for human life and understood communally within the larger society of nations, would be subverted by major parts of this proposed legislation (especially in sections 7 and 8). It needs to be said that the essay that Andrew Goddard and I wrote on this topic – and that we forwarded to the Nigerian Church via Martyn Minns – was posted on an evangelical Anglican website (Fulcrum) and certainly represents the views of many conservative Anglicans (as you suggest it probably does). It is quite possible to admire Abp. Akinola’s spiritual and missionary leadership – and I do, greatly – without agreeing with (and by in fact publicly disagreeing with) his support of this proposed legislation. You are right: this is an area where Anglican Christians across of the board ought to be able to be of one mind, even if they continue to stand far apart on basic theological principles dealing with sexuality. It is interesting, however, that there seem to be very few persons in the gay inclusionist wing of the church who are willing to accept this common ground: to argue for the theological and evangelical unacceptability of same-sex behavior, they claim, is already to have attacked the human rights of homosexuals. I have heard this claim made many times in response to my own views. In this kind of climate, it must be admitted, it is hard to make the kinds of distinctions necessary to bring conservatives and liberals together on this fundamental ground. I appreciate your more sensible – and to my mind, truthful -- approach.

Ephraim Radner

Matt said...

Dear Ephraim,

We would probably run out of fingers counting the number of things that you and I disagree on theologically, but I want to thank you for reaching out to this blog.

I have experienced the same frustration that you have with the inclusionist wing (which I would probably be considered a part of). I am primarily interested in correcting a wrong, while they are primarily interested in winning a grander debate on homosexuality. While I see that grander debate as largely futile at the present time, they see Archbishop Akinola's endorsement of the legislation as a means of gaining rhetorical advantage.

That said, I would propose to you that perhaps you are looking through the wrong side of the mirror. As a practical matter, it has only been the inclusionist wing of the Anglican Communion that has taken pro-active steps to stop this legislation from passing. I have yet to see a similar effort materialize among the orthodox. There may be days before it's too late, but in some sense it is the orthodox who have more to lose if the legislation should get Obasanjo's signature.

Matt said...

... one more thought.

I want to make a coalition happen. But it has to happen quickly. Anyone reading this, especially those on the "reasserter" side of the debate, and especially those in leadership or with the power of the quill, please email me at my address on the sidebar.

We will all look better for having done the right thing in this instance.

My position is just a rewording of what I hoped that Canon Harmon would have said to Howard Lesser:

I oppose the legislation before the Nigerian Federal Assembly, which would restrict the speech, assembly, press, and free exercise of religion rights of gay and lesbian Nigerians, and I furthermore believe that Archbishop Akinola erred in endorsing the legislation without qualification. It is my hope that Sections 7 and 8 will be stricken from the legislation -- those sections relating to the restriction of basic civil rights -- and with Archbishop Akinola's public support. Barring that, it is my hope that the legislation is defeated.

Anonymous said...


Understand Nigeria. Muslims in Nigeria saw nothing wrong in the imposition of Shari'a. If they did they would have protested against it.

I notice that people in the West are insinuating that Nigerian Muslims are less enthusiastic about this new legislation than their christian brethren.

That is simply not true. If they wholeheartedly supported Shari'a, then this legislation is a small matter, (the token Muslim opposition figure amplified by the Western media, notwithstanding).

The problem in Nigeria is a civil rights problem. We are talking about a nation that has more in common with Saudi Arabia than say, America.

Bishop Akinola, the Pentecostal Leadership and the Catholic Leadership are yet to appreciate the Human Rights implications of this new legislation. We have a long way to go.

Please remember that as recently as 1960, blacks and whites could not inter-marry legally in many states in America. We are all on the path towards progress.

Give us time, and for heavens sake, separate the human rights struggle for gay rights in the civil society from the theological debate over the role of gays in the Church. The more you blur this distinction, the less you contribute to meaningful progress within the Nigerian context.


Matt said...


Surely you see how close we are on this issue! We both see it as a problem of civil rights. I have been trying for over a year to explain to conservative Anglicans here in the US that it is exactly civil rights that we should be discussing and that we should keep separate the theological and political discussions. I wish nothing more than to make this distinction very clear, and very far from "blurry."

That said, I am quite certain, as you are, that Muslims in Nigeria are more comfortable with the new legislation than, say, Anglicans, given the adherence to Shar'iya in many northern States. My point was not that all Muslims have suddenly decided that the legislation is a bad idea, but that some have. And if some have, then the Church of Nigeria could do the same. They act as if all of Nigerian Islam is arrayed against them; the set of Muslim legislators who have misgivings about the legislation show that this is not the case.

What Archbishop Akinola has done by endorsing the legislation -- instead of denouncing certain aspects of it -- is to himself blur the distinction between civil and theological debate, which you rightly point out is so important. And he has done so by calling for the silencing of gay and lesbian Nigerians with a prison sentence.