The S-Word

Fearmongering about Sharia law in America needs to stop

There are approximately 30,000 Muslims in the State of Oklahoma. And apparently, the State of Oklahoma thinks they’re up to something.

Oklahoma voters recently ratified a state constitutional amendment that prohibits judges from considering Sharia law in their decisions. The proposal was bolstered by a case in New Jersey in which the court considered Sharia law in its decision to deny a Muslim woman a restraining order against her sexually abusive ex-husband. That decision, thankfully, was overturned on appeal. But it was enough to drive seven out of ten Oklahoma voters toward the “Save Our State” Amendment,” to “save” Oklahoma from, in the words of the bill’s main author, Muslims who desire nothing more than to take away “liberties and freedom from our children.”

The Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is currently challenging the constitutionality of this amendment, and rightfully so. But the law exemplifies something far more insidious than bad public policy. Quite simply, there is a dangerous amount of ignorance in the United States about what Sharia law actually is. And until this misconception is corrected, as another concerned columnist so eloquently put it, the war on global Islamist terror will also continue be a war on American Muslims.

Particularly during the Park51 controversy this summer, a wave of hysteria swept the country over the prospect of Sharia law on American soil. Following reports that the imam behind the Islamic center considered the United States a “Sharia-compliant” country, right-wing commentators labeled the man a “radical” and bashed his ostensible support for “bringing Sharia law to America.” Park51 protestors ferociously waved signs featuring the word “Sharia” in dripping blood-red paint. And during her campaign, Sharron Angle infamously referred to the possibility of Sharia law in the United States as a “militant terrorist situation.”

Their scorn for Sharia, of course, does not emerge from a vacuum. Practitioners of Sharia in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, the headlines tell us, stone adulterous women, cut off thieves’ hands, and physically mutilate wives for running away from their husbands. In addition, many on the right look to Britain, where the government officially sanctions Sharia courts. The main author of the Oklahoma bill referred to the British courts as a “cancer” and considers his amendment a “pre-emptive strike” against an ideology that seeks to subvert the “Judeo-Christian principles” upon which America was founded.

Unfortunately for him, however, Sharia has already made it to our shores.

Sharia—meaning “the path”—is far from merely a penal system and is far from monolithic. Every single behavior in a devout Muslim’s life is regulated by the jurisprudence of the Koran and the Sunna, the Prophetic tradition. There at least five major schools of jurisprudence and myriad philosophies within each school. So although the word “Sharia” may conjure images of floggings and female circumcision, for the vast majority of American Muslims, life under Sharia is about as oppressive raising a family, doing community service, and abstaining from alcohol.

Furthermore, the framework for sanctioning Islamic tribunals in the United States has existed for years. As one legal blogger notes, Sharia courts—such as those in England—fall under the category of “alternative dispute resolution” mechanisms. If two parties in a dispute agree to abide by the decisions of a third party, the government must enforce that third party’s decision so long as it does not violate public policy or the law. In the United States, resolutions like this can take secular form in arbitration, religious form in Orthodox Jewish Beit Dins, and entertaining form in popular shows like “Judge Judy.” There is nothing frightening about this, and certainly nothing “militant.”

So what of the apparent fear that, if given a toehold in America, Sharia courts will establish a “parallel legal system” that enshrines honor killings and spousal abuse? Twenty years ago, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court precluded this fear by ruling that absent a compelling state interest, religious law cannot override secular law. As Antonin G. Scalia wrote for the majority opinion, it would contradict “both constitutional tradition and common sense” to “make an individual’s obligation to obey” the law “contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs.”

To be sure, there is still a compelling question as to how voluntary these courts are in some cases. Often in Britain, writes one editorialist for The Guardian, Muslim women face tremendous community pressure to accept decisions that are clearly biased against them. But the United States can deal with issues of duress individually. It should not impact the rights of Muslims who genuinely desire to resolve their financial and civil disputes among themselves.

During his recent visit to Indonesia, President Barack H. Obama reiterated that America is not at war with Islam. But we must go even further: America is not at war with Sharia, either. Sharia is the Islamic legal code, a code that Muslims have every right to arbitrate under as long as their decisions do not violate American law or public policy. It’s that simple. And frankly, it is absurd to think that fear should prevent the United States from awarding Muslims the same rights it awards to Orthodox Jews and contestants on “Judge Judy.”

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House currently studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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