Arriving in London

The train that takes you along the Piccadilly line from Heathrow Airport to central London passes through places with such evocative names: there are Osterley, North Fields, Acton Town, Turnham Green, Stamford Brook…all of them Germanic, expressed in the language that has predominated here since about the fifth century, and suggesting a relationship between humans and the environment that, in both its closeness and antiquity, is stronger than that reflected in the toponymy of settler societies.  And England is such a traditional place: think of the monarchy, the peerage, common law, the established church, the old maids bicycling to communion through the morning mist, the walkers of dogs whose tastes are catered for in the sentimental stories about animals so prevalent in the media, the figure of John Bull who powerfully came to life in Churchill (I defy anyone not to be moved by the Churchill Museum and cabinet war rooms). It’s comforting to be in a place confident in its own values where change occurs so slowly.

A stroll around a familiar part of inner London suggests a different reality. Most of the people are non-Anglo, many of them, particularly the females, wearing highly distinctive dress. The neighbourhood is full of shops selling halal products, newspapers in undecipherable scripts, and Indian restaurants (I’m told most of them are really Bengali; for the cooks and waiters to observe Ramadan, as I know some of them do, must be a real hardship.) Old maids are thin on the ground, and there’s not a dog to be seen. Registering such scenes, some people fear the emergence in this part of the world of what they call Eurabia.

Issues raised by the possibility of shari’a law being made available in England provide a way of thinking about such matters. Many people are shocked at this, and the relinquishing by the state of what has been thought of as a monopoly in the administration of justice. But there is a precedent in the use among Jewish communities since ancient times of the courts of rabbis as a means of settling disputes, one that has been generally found to be cheap, fair, and directed towards mediation rather than identifying and punishing malefactors. Why could not something similar be available to Muslims? Of course there would have to be safeguards: access to a shari’a court would depend on the consent of both parties, who would agree in advance that neither would subsequently appeal to a secular court. Some people fear that Islamic courts would impose cruel punishments, but were this to occur the state could pursue those responsible through the secular courts on behalf of the victim, seeking punitive and exemplary damages.

So I’m prepared to be optimistic. And it’s worth remembering that the Vikings and Normans, whose coming to this country was far less peaceful than that of the current immigrants, were eventually absorbed into the English mainstream. There is every reason to believe that the same thing will happen now, and that the values of England will be successfully transmitted again, perhaps becoming richer as things like Indian restaurants become mainstream!

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