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Demagoguery and Sharia: Reviving an American Tradition

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Muslim bashing has become an official part of the Republican playbook. As the New York Times reports on Dec. 21, Newt Gingrich, the erstwhile frontrunner, has declared:

"I believe Shariah is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it."

Presumably judges in a Gingrich administration who recognize Sharia law will not only be dragged to Capitol Hill by the police, but impeached. "No judge will remain in office that tried to use sharia law," Gingrich has stated.

Gingrich is not alone. Mitt Romney declared in 2007 that it was "not likely" that he would have a Muslim in his cabinet, and this year echoed Gingrich: "Of course, we're not going to have Shariah law applied in U.S. courts."

Rick Santorum, largely ignored but now getting his 15 minutes from Iowa voters, declared Sharia incompatible with democracy, "A democracy could not exist because Muhammad already made the perfect law. The Koran is perfect just the way it is, that's why it is only written in Islamic [sic]."

Echoing Gingrich's own apocalyptic warnings, he calls Sharia "an existential threat" to the United States.

Michele Bachmann declared in response to the killing of Osama Bin Laden: "This is the beginning of the end of Sharia compliant terrorism."

Rick Perry has been attacked for signing a bill prohibiting the mislabeling of non-halal meat as halal. One commentator suggested Perry was 'putting the Texas state government in the position of enforcing Islamic dietary laws, a part of sharia."

The candidates have picked up on a strand of know-nothingism also at work in the states. Nearly two dozen states have introduced laws in the past two years to ban the use of Sharia in court cases. Seventy percent of Oklahoma voters approved a no Sharia initiative, and a state senator in Tennessee tried to make following Sharia a felony punishable by 15 years in jail.

Is there really an issue here? Our laws are secular. Religious groups often compete to have their notions of morality enacted into law. Indeed, religious Catholics, Jews and Muslims often agree on such hot button issues as abortion or gay marriage. Moreover, Sharia law, like other religious laws, is not monolithic. There are numerous schools of Islamic law and, although there are common threads, the laws in Muslim countries differ greatly and there is great scope for judges to exercise their conscience and their discretion. The specter of stonings and amputations is a caricature of Islamic law. In any event, American Muslims are not agitating for veilings or beheadings (although the U.S. alone, among modern democracies, shares approval for the death penalty).

To the extent that Muslim organizations support laws that accord with their beliefs and act within the democratic process, their actions are no different than the actions of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the American Jewish Committee. And the threat of some takeover of Sharia by stealth or against the democratic will is absurd. Muslims constitute less than 5 percent of the population. To the extent that Muslims are trying to have certain aspects of private or religious life governed by traditional laws, they are also well within the American mainstream. American Jews often bring disputes, voluntarily, to the Beth Din -- the Jewish courts that enforce traditional Jewish law and the decrees of such courts are enforced like any other voluntary agreement to delegate decision-making to an arbitrary forum. Beth Dins also issue decrees on such issues as divorce, certifying kosher establishments, burial, conversion and the like. Such decisions are not binding in secular courts, but give voluntary guidance to religious people who accept the authority of those courts. Religious courts granting religious divorces or making rulings on aspects of religious practice do not impinge on the rights of the majority or anyone other than those who voluntarily seek their authority.

In addition, religious groups have sought the protection of state laws to protect their religious rights. Jews have successfully argued for kosher slaughter laws virtually identical to the Halal law in Texas. New York and New Jersey have full time divisions of kosher enforcement, staffed by rabbis, that inspect establishments that offer kosher food for sale. Is that the state imposing religious law? Of course not. It is part of the reasonable accommodation that is made to treat religious practice with respect and to allow people to live religious lives within the context of a secular republic. To the extent that Muslims wish to have their practices accorded a certain amount of protection and respect or allow religious courts to provide guidance or voluntary resolution of disputes, this fits well within the tradition of religious minorities incorporating traditional institutions into American life without compromising on the secular legal tradition.

Stoking the irrational fear of being overtaken by alien religious doctrine is nothing new in American life. A. Lawrence Lowell, President of Harvard, opposed the nomination of Louis Brandeis, the first Jew ever to sit on the Supreme Court, arguing:

"For the first time in our history a man has been nominated to the Supreme Court with a view to attracting to the President a group of voters on racial grounds. Converting the United States into a Government by foreign groups is to me the most fatal thing that can happen to our Government . . . "

Attacks on Al Smith suggested he would take orders from the Pope when he ran for president in 1928, a charge that was echoed by Norman Vincent Peale when John Kennedy ran for President in 1960.

The fear of Muslim domination is nothing more than a tool for demagoguery. Fear of the other mobilizes votes. But the Muslim world follows our elections closely. We cannot call for tolerance in Islamic societies while candidates for the highest office stoke the flames of intolerance. We cannot hope for an Arab Spring while at the same time arguing for an anti-Islamic winter.

To be sure, there are "mortal threats" to the United States. Sharia is not one of them. By alienating American Muslims and the Muslim world by denigrating their law and culture only aggravates the real threats that we face.

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