Oklahoma’s recent amendment on Sharia law was a badly worded attempt to champion the independence of America’s legal system. Still the amendment, which prohibits state courts from considering Islamic and international law in deciding cases, should not simply be dismissed as irrelevant or bigoted. Although Sharia is not a threat to our way of life or our legal code, the integration of this system of law into the American one is a relevant issue that should receive more enough attention.
Islam has a legal framework, which covers everything from diet to crime to interest rates, which can be enforced in voluntary tribunal courts; this makes a discussion on Sharia law especially important. The vast majority of Jews do not go to an orthodox, rabbinical court and the vast majority of Catholics do not go to a papal court; however, an example of the influence of Islamic law is that in Britain, polls have shown that 40 percent of Muslims would like to see Sharia law introduced into the British legal code.
Indeed, in the U.S., courts can refer to decisions made by these voluntary religious courts and incorporate religious law. In a conflict of laws, American law wins, but this is where issues of consent and the fundamental values of these courts become important. The prospect of more and more legal cases in America being influenced, as they are allowed to, by Sharia law might threaten our social fabric—assuming that we value the concept of achieving a fully cohesive society. America, and Anglo-Saxon culture in general, has traditionally not frowned on multiculturalism and the existence of parallel communities as much as has Continental Europe. Even so, traditional aspects of Sharia law stand out in the scale of their difference from the legal practices and codes of much of the rest of the country.
Some aspects of the Sharia should be easy to accommodate into American culture: For example, many American banks are devising interest-free loans and products in accordance with the code so that they can operate more successfully in the Middle East. However, it is troubling that traditional interpretations of Sharia law do not consider a woman’s rights as equal to a man’s. The risk, then, is that decisions made by voluntary tribunal Islamic courts would strongly clash with those made by American courts. Traditional Sharia law includes provisions such as that a woman’s testimony is worth less than a man’s, and its application led to the stoning of Sakine Mohammadi-Ashtiani for adultery in Iran. In practice, it is naïve to think that a women from a traditional Islamic family would have the same power over deciding a marital problem as would, say, a non-religious woman of European descent. For precisely this kind of reason, The British human rights organization One Law For All, founded by a group of female Iranian refugees, campaigns for a ban on all Sharia courts in the U.K.
One might argue that the Bible, the Talmud and other religious texts also can lead to non-progressive conclusions, but the difference is that their scale is not the same. In Britain, Muslim Arbitration Tribunals are legally recognized and their decisions can be enforced by the public court system. Many Sharia courts have already sprung up and are deciding civil issues across the country. Informal tribunals are also able to issue non-binding decrees equivalent to mediation. Feedback in Britain shows that such traditional bodies do not necessarily always stick to their remit. For this reason, concerns over Sharia Law should be extended to the increase in private Sharia tribunals, which are permitted to decide voluntary civil—not criminal—cases in America.
We can take something from the statement reflected by the Oklahoma’s legislature. It’s not good to simply dismiss Sharia law as a threat to social cohesion; the question is whether or not many aspects of Sharia work against our efforts to build more a more progressive society.
Eli B. Martin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Lowell House. Anita J Joseph ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.