A few weeks back the Council of Canadian Law Deans fired an incendiary letter across the bow of the forthcoming law school by Trinity Western University. In their letter they argued that the rules of conduct and lifestyle at the Langley Christian university are incompatible with teaching law. In what may have been a rhetorical tweet, Adam Goldenberg opened the question wider still:
How would the Christian right react if someone wanted to open an "Islamic law school" in Canada? vancouversun.com/touch/story.ht…— Adam Goldenberg (@adamgoldenberg) January 17, 2013
First off, we must assume he means a school that teaches Canadian law from an Islamic perspective, which would compare to what TWU is proposing, as opposed to, say, a Sharia Law school, which would compare to Church Canon Law (maybe) and goes without saying should not be legally accredited by the state. But this is still a great question: I am a Christian, though whether I get pilloried as a member of the apocryphal Christian right remains to be seen, and I am for a school that teaches Canadian law from an Islamic perspective.
In Canada, there are two dominant traditions of secularism that have strong historic and legal roots: Judeo-Christian secularism and laïcité. The first believes that secular, democratic virtues were built upon, and are sustained by, the overlapping theo-political consensus of Judaism and Christianity (in their various forms). This tradition believes strongly in institutional disestablishment, but at the same time argues that the very principles of disestablishment, of equality, fairness, and the dignity of human persons, are rooted in these religious traditions. The innovation of pluralism was an essentially theological one. A Christian law school is inherently non-threatening for this reason, because it is deepening the tradition that provided those virtues in the first place. An Islamic law school could well be very threatening, since it is unclear, at best, that this tradition reliably produces the kind of democratic sentiments secular Canadians have come to enjoy.
Laïcité, on the other hand, regards all religious traditions in public as inherently dangerous, unstable, and rationally irreconcilable. Its genealogy of secularism is the polar opposite of the Judeo-Christian story, not democratic virtues proceeding from religion, but democratic virtues sustained over and against a powerful, repressive theo-political regime. The problem is not so much with an Islamic law school, as any religious law school (or public argument). Charles Taylor and others have justifiably warned, I believe, that this kind of secularism can also take on civil religious airs.
It would take a radical redefinition of the secular to be for an Islamic law school in Canada; the kind of secularity that would be defined by the state's proper response to diversity, rather than the chimera of rooting out religious manifestation in public. Such a redefinition of the secular would be principled, sustaining 'Canadian values,' insisting on their meanings as providing genuine limits to pluralism, but agnostic as to the means by which Canadians arrive at them. We would arrive at a political place not dissimilar to the original architecture of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Jacques Maritain famously said, "We agree on these rights, provided nobody asks us why."
Contrary to both Judeo-Christian secularism and laïcité such a radical redefinition of the secular calls for more, not less, public religious expression; more explicitly articulated rationale for why these values and principles matter. Indeed, if it is to be the case that Canadians expect a diversity of intellectual and religious traditions, if we are to expect the Kantians, as well as the Muslims, the utilitarians and libertarians, as well as the Christians, to enfold the secular principles of Canadian society, then we must encourage these communities, like Trinity Western, like an Islamic law school, to articulate their own, strong, internal rationale for why such principles deserve their support.
There is no question that a law school by Trinity Western University will face tensions with those principles, but there is also no question that to this point it is possible—not only legally but philosophically—to embrace the dignity and rights of human persons, their lifestyles and identities, while at the same time refraining from personally—or institutionally—embracing or practicing them. Wouldn't the exercise, then, of creating an Islamic law school, which teaches Canadian law and Canadian principles, but funds their deep meanings from within the Islamic tradition, be a great, and powerful testimony to the virility of those same Canadian laws and principles? I, for one, hope that Trinity Western University's case is successful, and prepares the way for more of the same.