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Shariah hysteria: unwarranted, unconstitutional

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Charles C. Haynes
March 26, 2011

In my last column, I sounded an alarm about rise of Islamophobia in the United States, calling attempts in various states to pass anti-Shariah legislation an attack on religious freedom.


That inspired a good number of irate readers to sound their own alarm about what they view as my naïve and dangerous dismissal of the threat Shariah (Islamic law) poses to the United States.


“This is not a First Amendment issue,” explains one reader. “This is a life and death issue. Muslims have already taken over Europe. They will not succeed here.”


Another reader sees my defense of American Muslims and opposition to anti-Shariah laws as downright un-American.


“To you I say, TERRORIST GO HOME!,” writes a combat veteran. “You are either with us or against us, and it’s clear you are against America.”


My angry correspondents aren’t alone in their fear of Shariah—or what they think is Shariah. Thanks to a persistent anti-Shariah drumbeat from anti-Islam groups, many Americans now worry about Muslims in their neighborhood and the growth of Islam in this country.


“Shariah” is fast becoming shorthand for “Muslim takeover.”


This month Missouri became the latest state to be infected with Shariah hysteria when some state legislators joined the ranks of lawmakers in at least 13 states who are pushing laws aimed at barring courts from invoking Shariah.


One bright spot is Tennessee. This week, after pressure from many religious and civil liberties groups, sponsors of anti-Shariah legislation pulled references to Shariah from their bill. Now the proposed law is more properly aimed at countering terrorism without targeting or criminalizing any religion.


Nothing I can say about Shariah will likely change the minds of my most angry correspondents, much less the legislators behind the remaining anti-Shariah laws. But to people in the persuadable middle who are confused about Shariah, let me try to fill in some of the blanks.


First and foremost, conflating Shariah and terrorism ignores the fact that millions of Muslims have practiced Shariah in this country for generations in ways entirely consistent with U.S. law.


Contrary to the simplistic and distorted definitions in the various state bills, Shariah is not a monolithic set of unchanging laws.


Shariah is a complex system of religious jurisprudence (based on the Quran and the sayings and conduct of the Prophet Muhammad) that has been interpreted in various ways through the centuries in different parts of the world. The anti-Shariah movement focuses on the fundamentalist, Taliban-style interpretations of Shariah rejected by American Muslim leaders and institutions.


Given the number of terrorist acts carried out in the name of Islam, it’s not surprising that some Americans blame Islam and Islamic law for the rise of extremist groups. But the distortion of Islam by radical Islamist groups does not justify wholesale condemnation of Islam as an inherently evil and violent religion—the core claim of the anti-Shariah movement in the U.S.


Legislation banning courts from considering Shariah—or laws aimed at outlawing it—are unwarranted and unconstitutional.


It’s unwarranted for at least two reasons: First, the Constitution already bars government imposition of any religious law, including courts’ using religious law to decide cases. Second, if the aim is to fight terrorism, we already have laws aimed at preventing violent acts—laws that apply to everyone.


Anti-Shariah laws are also unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment, government may not target or stigmatize any religion. Moreover, all Americans are free to believe and follow the laws of their faith—Roman Catholic Canon Law, Jewish law, Shariah or any other religious law—as long as such laws don’t violate civil law.


Don’t believe propaganda about the “Shariah threat” in the United States. American Muslims are not covertly planning to subvert the Constitution. On the contrary, American Muslim leaders and institutions are often at the forefront in defending American principles and ideals at home and abroad—including religious freedom.


Anti-Shariah legislation would do nothing to fight terrorism. In fact, such laws would only serve as a terrorist recruiting tool by confirming al-Qaida’s charge that America is at war with Islam.


Shariah hysteria is the latest outbreak of fear and loathing of the “other”—an un-American American disease that has victimized Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others at various times in our history.


Religious freedom prevailed before—and, if we speak out, it will again.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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