Cheryl Baisden: Fear Propels Religious Attacks
A guarantee of religious freedom was what compelled the Pilgrims to risk their lives to cross the Atlantic Ocean and settle along the inhospitable Massachusetts coast in 1620. And yet it didn’t take long for these new inhabitants of America to begin railing against individuals with different religious views and practices. Failing to follow the Puritan way of life could leave you condemned to a dark, dank prison cell; sentenced to a painful and public punishment clamped in the town square’s stockade; or banished from the village altogether.
In those early days of America’s settlement, religious and civil law were one and the same. In fact, each community enforced its own laws, based on the dictates of their church leaders. With the passage of the U.S. Constitution, religious freedom became a right guaranteed to all citizens, explains Grayson Barber, a New Jersey attorney whose practice focuses on individual rights issues.
“The First Amendment says ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,’” Barber says. “Notice that there are two main provisions, the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. The first makes the United States very unusual. Unlike most countries, the U.S. has no official or ‘established’ church. The free exercise clause provides that in the U.S. we are free to pray wherever and whenever we want, and the government cannot force us to participate in religious activities we disagree with. As a result, the U.S. is the best place in the world to be religious. You can practice any religion you want.”
One religion singled out
In the past few years, however, several states have passed or are considering legislation that would restrict the way followers of one specific religion practice their faith. The legislative movement was launched following
a 2010 family court ruling involving a Moroccan couple in New Jersey, where a Hudson County judge denied a wife a restraining order against her husband because he claimed his alleged sexual assaults on his wife were justified under Islamic religious law, known as sharia law. The ruling was later overturned by the appellate court, which found that the original decision in the case of S.D. v. M.J.R. was based on a misunderstanding of sharia law and its place in the court system. But by then, anti- Islamic groups like the Society of Americans for National Existence were strongly pushing lawmakers around the country for a ban on sharia law.
What is sharia law?
For followers of just about any religion there are certain rules that apply to their faith, from kosher laws among Jewish people to the disapproval of divorce among Catholics. In the same way, sharia is the law that governs certain aspects of everyday life for Muslims.
In an interview with Salon, Abed Awad, a New Jersey attorney who regularly handles Islamic law cases and is an adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School—Newark, explains that sharia is based on the Quran, which is the Muslim Holy Scripture, much like the New Testament is for Catholics and the Old Testament is for Jewish people.
Just like the religious laws in those faiths, sharia focuses on the ways and times followers pray and observe their faith, as well as rules regarding marriage, divorce, child rearing, business dealings and estate matters. These religious laws help followers live within the guidelines of their religion, but don’t take the place of the civil and criminal laws applied by our courts. Awad points out that the appellate ruling in the New Jersey case of S.D. v. M.J.R. was actually “consistent with Islamic law, which prohibits spousal abuse.”
While most people have some familiarity with Jewish and Catholic religious laws because they have been exposed to them for so many years in American culture, sharia is still unfamiliar to many. With an estimated eight million Americans now practicing Islam, sharia is becoming more visible, according to Awad.
“Islam is a major world religion,” explains Barber, “but largely unfamiliar in the U.S. Fear of the unknown is probably lurking behind the hostility to sharia. Of course the shadow of 9/11 is behind much of this, as the hijackers claimed to be Muslim. As we become more familiar with Islam, we will learn that every large group is comprised of a wide variety of people…. Apart from a radical criminal element, Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding people with the same variety of personalities and characteristics you would find in any other population.”
The movement against sharia
The first state to propose legislation against sharia law was Oklahoma, where in November 2010, 70 percent of voters approved an amendment to the state
constitution dictating that the Oklahoma courts “shall not consider international law or sharia law” when making judicial decisions.
Oklahoma State Representative Rex Duncan, one of the bill’s two sponsors, told CNN before the proposal received voter approval, that part of the legislation’s purpose was to ban religious forms of arbitration. “Parties would come to the courts and say we want to be bound by Islamic law and then ask the courts to enforce those agreements,” he said. “That is a backdoor way to get sharia law into courts. There…have been some efforts,
I believe, to explore bringing that to America, and it’s dangerous.”
Original post: Fear Propels Religious Attacks