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Amy Sullivan: The sharia myth sweeps America

14 June 2011 General 10 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

If you are not vitally concerned about the possibility of radical Muslims infiltrating the U.S. government and establishing a Taliban-style theocracy, then you are not a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. In addition to talking about tax policy and Afghanistan, Republican candidates have also felt the need to speak out against the menace of “sharia.”

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum refers to sharia as “an existential threat” to the United States. Pizza magnate Herman Cain declared in March that he would not appoint a Muslim to a Cabinet position or judgeship because “there is this attempt to gradually ease sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government.”

The generally measured campaign of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty leapt into panic mode over reports that during his governorship, a Minnesota agency had created a sharia-compliant mortgage program to help Muslim homebuyers. “As soon as Gov. Pawlenty became aware of the issue,” spokesman Alex Conant assured reporters, “he personally ordered it shut down.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has been perhaps the most focused on the sharia threat. “We should have a federal law that says under no circumstances in any jurisdiction in the United States will sharia be used,” Gingrich announced at last fall’s Values Voters Summit. He also called for the removal of Supreme Court justices (a lifetime appointment) if they disagreed.

Gingrich’s call for a federal law banning sharia has gone unheeded so far. But at the local level, nearly two dozen states have introduced or passed laws in the past two years to ban the use of sharia in court cases.

Despite all of the activity to monitor and restrict sharia, however, there remains a great deal of confusion about what it actually is. It’s worth taking a look at some facts to understand why an Islamic code has become such a watchword in the 2012 presidential campaign.

What is sharia?

More than a specific set of laws, sharia is a process through which Muslim scholars and jurists determine God’s will and moral guidance as they apply to every aspect of a Muslim’s life. They study the Quran, as well as the conduct and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, and sometimes try to arrive at consensus about Islamic law. But different jurists can arrive at very different interpretations of sharia, and it has changed over the centuries.

Importantly, unlike the U.S. Constitution or the Ten Commandments, there is no one document that outlines universally agreed upon sharia.

Then how do Muslim countries use sharia for their systems of justice?

There are indeed some violent and extreme interpretations of sharia. That is what the Taliban used to rule Afghanistan. In other countries, sharia may be primarily used to govern contracts and other agreements. And in a country like Turkey, which is majority Muslim, the national legal system is secular, although individual Muslims may follow sharia in their personal religious observances such as prayer and fasting. In general, to say that a person follows sharia is to say that she is a practicing Muslim.

How and when is it used in U.S. courts?

Sharia is sometimes consulted in civil cases with Muslim litigants who may request a Muslim arbitrator. These may involve issues of marriage contracts or commercial agreements, or probating an Islamic will. They are no different than the practice of judges allowing orthodox Jews to resolve some matters in Jewish courts, also known as beth din.

U.S. courts also regularly interpret foreign law in commercial disputes between two litigants from different countries, or custody agreements brokered in another country. In those cases, Islamic law is treated like any other foreign law or Catholic canon law.

What about extreme punishments like stoning or beheading?

U.S. judges may decide to consider foreign law or religious codes like sharia, but that doesn’t mean those laws override the Constitution. We have a criminal justice system that no outside law can supersede. Additionally, judges consider foreign laws only if they choose to — they can always refuse to recognize a foreign law.

So if sharia is consulted only in certain cases and only at the discretion of the court, why has it become such a high priority for states and GOP candidates? One answer is that sharia opponents believe they need to act not to prevent the way Islamic law is currently used in the U.S. but to prevent a coming takeover by Muslim extremists. The sponsor of an Oklahoma measure banning sharia approved by voters last fall described it as “a pre-emptive strike.” Others, like the conservative Center for Security Policy, assert that all Muslims are bound to work to establish an Islamic state in the U.S.

But if that was true — and the very allegation labels every Muslim in America a national security threat — the creeping Islamic theocracy movement is creeping very slowly. Muslims first moved to the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, for example, nearly a century ago to work in Henry Ford‘s factories. For most of the past 100 years, Dearborn has been home to the largest community of Arabs in the U.S. And yet after five or six generations, Dearborn’s Muslims have not sought to see the city run in accordance with sharia. Bars and the occasional strip clubs dot the town’s avenues, and a pork sausage factory is located next to the city’s first mosque.

Maybe Dearborn’s Muslims are just running a very drawn-out head fake on the country. It’s hard to avoid the more likely conclusion, however, that politicians who cry “Sharia!” are engaging in one of the oldest and least-proud political traditions — xenophobic demagoguery. One of the easiest ways to spot its use is when politicians carelessly throw around a word simply because it scares some voters.

Take Gerald Allen, the Alabama state senator who was moved by the danger posed by sharia to sponsor a bill banning it — but who, when asked for a definition, could not say what sharia was. “I don’t have my file in front of me,” he told reporters. “I wish I could answer you better.” In Tennessee, lawmakers sought to make following sharia a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison — until they learned that their effort would essentially make it illegal to be Muslim in their state.

During last year’s Senate race in Nevada, GOP candidate Sharon Angle blithely asserted that Dearborn, as well as a small town in Texas, currently operate under sharia law. And Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann used the occasion of Osama bin Laden’s death to tie the terrorist mastermind to the word: “It is my hope that this is the beginning of the end of Sharia-compliant terrorism.”

The anti-communist Red Scare of the 1950s made broad use of guilt by innuendo and warnings about shadowy conspiracies. If GOP candidates insist they are not doing the same thing to ordinary Muslims, they can prove it by explaining what they believe sharia is and whether they’re prepared to ban the consideration of all religious codes from civil arbitration. Anything less is simply fear mongering.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at Time and author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap.

Original post: Amy Sullivan: The sharia myth sweeps America


  1. An upside to this: Maybe in their anti-sharia haste, they will pass laws more stringently blocking religious interference in government matters – unwittingly strengthening the wall between the state and their own churches.

  2. As long as Americans choose to be ignorant about Sharia Law and its counterparts in the Jewish Religion, Catholic Church, Episcopalian Church, and Lutheran Church, among others, then demagogues will continue to frighten them with the spectre of radical Islam. And if someone in a burqa managed to jump out from behind a parked car and shout, “Booga! Booga!” it would cause a percentage of these poor gullible people to have a heart attack. Of course, such stuff is patently ridiculous, but this kind of hatred is being stoked by America’s own version of the Taliban, the “Christian” Religious Right.

  3. As an American Muslim who was a practicing conservative Christian until 1999, and who had been a conservative Republican since before converting to Islam, I want to correct some misconceptions in Amy Sullivans article. First, I do want to say that I agree with Sullivan that certainly most GOP candidates have used scare tactics at the expense of American Muslims to gain votes in previous elections, and also in the present 2012 Presidential Campaign. But I believe at least two GOP candidates on the campaign trail now are not Islamophobes. The first is Ron Paul. He sees his role as the defender of the American Constitution, which says that “Congress shall make no law” which infringes upon religious liberty. I and many Muslims I know supported Ron Paul’s 2008 Presidential Campaign. Every single campaign worker we worked with in the Ron Paul campaign was genuinely friendly toward our Muslim group and believed the majority of Muslims were in support of Religious Liberty. Paul is saying the same things now as he did in 2008, so no Muslim I know of doubts that Ron Paul has a good understanding of the Politics of American Muslims. Ron Paul is my first choice for President among Republicans, Democrats, and other parties. Tim Pawlenty is the other GOP candidate who understands American Muslims and is certainly not an Islamophobe. A decade ago, Tim Pawlenty helped Minnesota Muslims pass a state law to the effect that any food products advertized as Halal must indeed be Halal. The Jewish Community locally also supported the law. A couple of other similar items protecting Muslims were in the works, but then came 9-11. About the same time, some banks in Minnesota began talking about Halal loans for Muslims, since usury is forbidden in Islam. Tim Pawlenty also had business dealings with American Muslims, and campaigned for Governor of Minnesota in some local mosques. In the first 2012 Election GOP debate on FOX, Tim Pawlenty affirmed that he believed the majority of Muslims world-wide are good people, yet held firm against the terrorists, which I believe is the same attitude that most American Muslims have on the issue. Thus, I believe that Tim Pawlenty is not one who will use the spectre of so-called “Islamic” (actually Wahabi) Shariah to get votes. As for Mitch Romney, in the 2nd 2012 GOP presidential debate, Romney stated that he didn’t believe “Islamic” Shariah would get into Islamic Courts. As a member of the LDS Church, Romney is aware of the Mormon Extermination Order issued by Missiori Governor Lilburn Boggs that led to Mormons being chased from their lands, and even instances of rape and the murder of children by the anti-Mormon mob. Romney would also be aware that his Prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., declared that all peoples on earth, including “Mahomedans” were welcome in his new town of Navou in Illinois, and were assured Religious Liberty. Thus, I’m not very concerned about these three GOP candidates using Islamophobic tactics in their quest to be the 2012 GOP Presidential Candidate, especially in the cases Paul and Pawlenty. However, I am very concerned about the rest of the candidates. By the way, Sunni Shariah became a part of the law of the Normans when they owned Sicily for a while in the Middle Ages. Muslims were allowed freedom of religion under the Normans, until the German Holy Roman Emperor gained possesion of Sicily. Meanwhile, William the Conqueror brought Norman Law with him to England with him in 1066. The British brought that to the New World, where it entered American Common Law. Most Americans don’t know this, but most lawyers ought to know this. It is a shame that legal experts do not point out this fact to AMericans.

  4. “What is sharia?

    More than a specific set of laws, sharia is a process through which Muslim scholars and jurists determine God’s will and moral guidance as they apply to every aspect of a Muslim’s life. They study the Quran, as well as the conduct and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, and sometimes try to arrive at consensus about Islamic law. But different jurists can arrive at very different interpretations of sharia, and it has changed over the centuries.”

    LMAO……. god’s will…please you people are insane, god’s law says that women should inherit half as much as men? god’s law says that women are the spoils of war to be enslaved???? is there a single muslim who knows their own religion??

  5. The Equal Rights Amendment is up for ratification again. “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state in account of sex.” The Amendment was passed by Congress in 1972 but not ratified by the necessary 38 states. Until the law was passed, women in Louisiana, for instance, were not allowed to own a business without their husbands’ consent.
    Only seven countries have not signed the international bill of rights for women (CEDAW): Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan and Tonga. Nieue, Vatican City and the US have signed but not ratified. Write your Congressman or Senator and ask him or her to ratify the ERA here in the US.

  6. women get half property than men,doesn’t mean they are half ‘of’ men…they get parts from their father,parts from husband,parts from childrens….they do not need to spend bucks for food,home or anything as we,the men,are bound to fulfil their every need…each and every

  7. What is wrong with sharia courts?
    On International Women’s Day, in March, there was a huge demonstration in London, backed by feminists, supporters of gay rights and others – including a substantial number of Muslims – who marched under a banner saying: “No sharia and faith-based laws – one law for all.” They claimed that the supposedly voluntary nature of the courts is a sham, because many Muslim women are pressured into accepting their rulings, and that sharia courts dispense cheap injustice. Denis MacEoin, author of the Civitas report, argues: “Women are not equal in sharia law, and sharia contains no specific commitment to the best interests of the child that is fundamental to family law in the UK. Under sharia, a male child belongs to the father after the age of seven, regardless of circumstances.” The Muslim Council of Britain says that this talk is “scaremongering”. (quote from The Independent London)

    Under Sharia law’s civil code, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s;34 a woman’s marriage contract is between her male guardian and her husband and a Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a non-Muslim. A man can have four wives and divorce his wife by simple repudiation, whereas a woman must give justifications for requesting a divorce, some of which are extremely difficult to prove. Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age, even if the father is abusive; women who remarry lose custody of their children even if the child has not reached the preset age; and sons are entitled to inherit twice the share of daughters.35 “(Quote from One Law For All)

    “If Sharia law is implemented, then you can turn this country into a haven of peace because once a thief’s hand is cut off nobody is going to steal.
    “Once, just only once, if an adulterer is stoned nobody is going to commit this crime at all.
    “We want to offer it to the British society. If they accept it, it is for their good and if they don’t accept it they’ll need more and more prisons.”
    Suhaib Hasan, Secretary General of the Islamic Sharia Council1

  8. Theocracy in the US of A:

    OH those METHODISTS!

  9. Thanks to Amy Sullivan for a very balanced piece on this subject of Shariah. The GOP has lost me and many Muslims since their extremist views surfaced on anything to do with Islam. They forget that many Muslims at one time supported the GOP for its many socially conservative views. Even Muhammad Ali – a world icon – an American Muslim, was a Republican supporter of President George H.W. Bush. Now I truly don’t know of anyone within the Muslim community who supports the GOP. The GOP’s xenophobia and bigotry have lost all decent Americans minus only the hateful camp within the far right. With this line of chauvinism, it won’t take too long for the GOP to lose all the minority supports within its support base.

  10. […] Muslims wouldn’t put up with the GOP candidates’ obscenely bigoted, “Christian values” veil of BS, and would therefore never invite the candidates to a forum. […]

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