In the past two years, 14 states have moved to consider banning the use of foreign laws in state courts. The impetus behind the movement may seem clear: “American laws in American courts” is a proposition we can all agree upon. But some of these states have been disturbingly specific about what foreign laws they mean to target. For example, an Oklahoma ballot initiative aimed to prevent state courts from considering international or Islamic law. Similarly, South Carolina legislators pushed for a law that said “the courts shall not consider Sharia Law”. And Tennessee lawmakers proposed a law targeting Sharia, for fear that it calls for the overthrow of the U.S. government.
What is it about the religious code of the Islamic faith that poses such a threat to our country’s foundation? It may seem bizarre that the set of laws that Muslims refer to for dietary restrictions, distribution of inheritance, and everything in between could be the subject of such a legislative assault. Like all religions and systems of belief, Islam has its own principles that its followers strive to follow. What could possibly be so destructive about the dicta of one of the world’s major faiths? What is clear is that proponents of the anti-Sharia movement see their struggle in apocalyptic terms. “[Sharia is] a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it” according to Newt Gingrich. Where has the ideological fervor of the anti-Sharia movement come from?
It has not been generated spontaneously. One of the movement’s main directors has been David Yerushalmi, a lawyer who, after studying Islam for two years, came to the conclusion that Sharia was the greatest threat to the West in existence. Yerushlami, the director of the Society of Americans for National Existence, drafted the statute that has served as a model for states considering their own push against Sharia law. Unsurprisingly, he calls Islam “an evil political ideology”. But Islam is not the only target of Yerushalmi’s prejudice. Also notable are several controversial statements he has made in the past regarding women and racial differences. It is not difficult to see that his views on Muslims and his views on minorities and women are related. In fact, the beliefs that legitimize excluding women from democracy are a close cousin of the beliefs that wish to see the voices of Muslims marginalized. The same beliefs that lead one to view “blacks as the most murderous of peoples” are of the same type that hold that Muslim religious law promotes “a view of the world that is evil and therefore [Muslims] are more dangerous than another people”.
In a newsletter published in 2006, Yerushalmi laid out his view that human beings of African ancestry are “naturally” more violent than others. Furthermore, he expressed chagrin at the idea that such a view constituted “bad racism”: “if the New York City and national murder statistics suggest there is a racial component to murder, why is that necessarily a bad racism?” Yerushalmi has also expressed sympathy for a conspiratorial anti-Semitism, writing that secular Jews are “in fact the leading proponents of all forms of anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Christian movements, campaigns, and ideologies.”
There is a similar strain of virulence in Yerushalmi’s view of Islam. “Muslim civilization is at war with Judeo-Christian civilization….The Muslim peoples, those committed to Islam as we know it today, are our enemies.” When Yerushlami looks at peoples and practices he is unfamiliar with, he sees a conspiracy against the established order. In his worldview, Muslims, like secular Jews, aren’t a diverse group unified by a shared identity, but an opposing force that seeks to irrevocably damage all that he holds dear. There is no subtlety in his views of Islam, just like there is none in his view of what might lead to greater incidence of criminal behavior in the African-American community in New York City.
What underlies Yerushalmi’s beliefs are a paranoia and phobia of the other. His view that “Shari’a amounts to a criminal conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government” is merely an echo of his wish for sealing American borders and putting undocumented workers into detention camps. This is the ideology that underlies the anti-Sharia movement- a reactionary fear of multiculturalism and a nostalgic view of the time when America was true to its principles of “Judeo-Christian foundings”.
Yerushalmi and his organization have galvanized the anti-Sharia movement with the slogan “American Law in American Courts”, a benign and agreeable proposition. But the anti-Sharia movement relies on a non-sequitur- the conclusion that Sharia, and by extension Islam, is a dangerous ideology that needs to be restrained does not follow from the premise that foreign law ought not to intrude on domestic law. The same type of logical leap characterizes Yerushalmi’s views on black people- that African-Americans may commit more crimes than other races does not imply that they are genetically more violent.
In fact, Yerushalmi’s views are far outside the mainstream and need to be recognized as such. He has declared his personal think-tank, the Society of Americans for National Existence, to be “dedicated to the rejection of democracy and party rule and a return to a constitutional republic”. Given his history of radical race mongering, his anti-democratic views should not come as any surprise. What has been disappointing is the political climate that has facilitated the rise of these deeply paranoid conspiracy theories into actual or potential legislation in a number of states.
The implementation of a law banning Sharia in Oklahoma was blocked by a federal court earlier this year. This was a welcome step in the national debate that has fomented around Sharia law and its sometimes hysterical tone. But the true antidote to the anti-Sharia movement will not be found in the courts, but in outreach to ordinary Americans who continue to see overly unfair and misleading portrayals of Islam and its adherents.