Sharia law: The phantom threat

“I believe in an America…where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

So reads the speech that marked perhaps the finest moment in America’s long history of conflict about the proper role of religion in government: John F. Kennedy’s landmark 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on the question of whether his Catholicism would affect his presidency. At the time, there were those who lived in irrational fear that a Kennedy Administration would take its marching orders from the Vatican and not the American people or the Constitution.

Such concerns now sound laughably outdated. Some 95% of Americans now feel comfortable electing a Catholic as president. But these pathological anxieties never disappeared. They only shifted form.

There is still a boogeyman in the closet who wants to impose the laws of his scary religion on innocent Americans. The forces of fear mongering and intolerance in this country though, realized that canon law isn’t as scary as it used to be. A new boogeyman was needed. Now he is a Muslim; his method of subverting the Constitution… Sharia law.

Some two dozen states have recently either passed or considered laws that would ban the use of Sharia law in their court systems, with Kansas having recently passed such a bill and Florida having narrowly voted one down not long after. Leading politicians such as Newt Gingrich call Sharia “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it.”

Between 15 and 30 percent of Americans believe that American Muslims would like to impose Sharia law on the whole country if they could. At the heart of the issue are the same fears that motivated Kennedy to deliver his speech: the fear that there is a minority group in America with divided loyalties. Indeed, Gallup polling reveals a substantial amount of the population questions the loyalty of American Muslims.

JanSuzanne Krasner provides a good example of the hysteria pervading the anti-Sharia camp, writing that, “If non-Muslim Americans do not recognize how close they are to the precipice, then they are beyond a shadow of a doubt going to fall victims to an Islamic conquest.” She trumpets, as a devastating piece of evidence of this nefarious plot, anecdotal conversations she had with several unnamed American Muslims who said that they hoped one day everyone would become a Muslim. If this is the criteria on which Ms. Krasner bases the Islamic plot against America, one must assume that she has never spoken to an Evangelical Christian in her life.

Krasner’s piece is what passes for the intellectual wing of the movement, whose members at least cites court cases and other pieces of evidence to help paint their pictures of Islamic dystopia. At the other end of the spectrum, you have Ayesha Ahmed, the second hit on Google for the phrase “Sharia in America.” She presents a vision of America under Sharia law that borders on self-parody, where wars for slaves and booty are fought against Mexico and Canada, and pedophilia is legalized.

Unlike Krasner though, at no point does she trouble the reader with anything recognizable as evidence that any American Muslim has ever seriously advocated declaring war on Canada for their valuable plunder. There are countless other examples of such articles and blogs, but these two give a fairly good picture of the general idea, namely, that there is a plot to undermine American law and replace it with a variety of terrifying alternatives, loosely grouped under the title of “Sharia.”

Now, Sharia law can certainly be used to promote values that are very much in conflict with those of the United States. A quick glance at Saudi Arabia or Iran shows that. But the anti-Sharia law campaign being waged in the United States today is doing about as much to stop us from becoming Saudi Arabia as McCarthyism did to save us from communism.

Sharia, like any religious code, can be used for good or ill, depending on who is doing the interpreting. Interpretation of Sharia law is a vibrant field encompassing a huge variety of thinkers and ideas. The anti-Sharia law camp, led by such professional scaremongers as David Yerushalmi and Pamela Geller, shrug this off and assume that every interpretation of Sharia ends up with America looking like the Arabian Peninsula circa 700 C.E., with beheadings and stoning of adulterers as far as the eye can see.

Beheading, though, is not a topic that ever comes up in actual citations of sharia in American courts. The truth is far less exciting. Abed Awad, writing in The Nation, points to the rather mundane nature of most of the cases in which Sharia was involved: divorce proceedings, contract disagreements between oil companies, and child custody disputes. A single dramatic case involving a wife filing a restraining order against her husband in New Jersey gets most of the attention, but even there the judge’s citation of Sharia to find for the husband was thrown out by a higher court.

Steve Chapman asked rhetorically in The Chicago Tribune, “Does that mean we need anti-Shariah laws to keep women from being stoned to death with the cheerful blessing of American courts? Amazingly, no. It seems that our laws and Constitution take precedence on American soil no matter what the rules are in Iran.”

It is the great irony of the struggle to save Americans from medieval mayhem, as Matthew Schmitz pointed out in The National Review, that what anti-Sharia pushers essentially are spending so much time and energy doing is to make illegal things illegal, and unconstitutional things unconstitutional. Mr. Yerushalmi’s tireless efforts are not the reason why no one is stoned to death for adultery in the United States. The law banning murder is the reason for that.

Anyone who has taken the trouble to read the Constitution knows that no non-Muslim will ever be subject to the laws of the Quran in the United States, nor will any American Muslim ever be subject to laws that violate American law, Quaranic basis or not. Then again, very few of us have actually troubled ourselves to read the Constitution. Most famously, a poll showed that Americans displayed greater knowledge of The Simpsons than they did their own founding document. Perhaps if we did, we would all realize that the United States is about as threatened from sharia law as it is from the analects of Confucius.

Furthermore, Muslims make up an estimated 0.66 percent of the American population. How precisely they would enforce their will upon the other 99.4 percent of Americans has never been laid out in any way that is not utterly laughable. Dr. Akbar Ahmed of American University said that the idea that sharia poses a real threat to the United States, “takes your breath away, it’s so absurd.”

Defenders of anti-sharia legislation lamely make the “creeping threat” argument, which essentially says that they are just heading off the threat while they still can, but this weak defense only shows that even they accept that sharia poses no current threat to America. Most observers should be able to tell though, that this has never been about protecting this country’s laws or way of life. One looks in vain, for example, for similar efforts to stop Christian Dominionism, a fringe movement among Protestants that advocates that Christians infiltrate politics and use government institutions for Christian ends.

Why, then, would there be so much effort expended to ban our courts from being able to fairly decide disputes between oil companies? Salam Al-Marayati nails it in a New York Times article when he says, “it’s purely a political wedge to create fear and hysteria.”

The anti-sharia movement cares little for this country, its laws, or its Constitution. It has no use for evidence or logic, and lives off of fear and ignorance. Its demonization of Muslims is nothing but a cheap and bigoted political trick to drive traffic to certain websites and votes to certain candidates. In the post-September 11 environment, Muslims happen to be the convenient scapegoat in American society, and the anti-sharia movement has exploited this vulnerability to the fullest.

The final word here belongs to Kennedy. “Today I may be the victim,” said Kennedy, “but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped.”

Sharia law is no threat to America. Hatemongering and Islamophobia, though, are.

Check out the infographic below highlighting the anti-Sharia legislation that is currently floating across the U.S.
*To see the expanded PDF version, click on the image below.
Credit: Leena Saleh, Communications Coordinator for CAIR-Chicago.