Understanding Shariah and Defending Our Religious Freedom

“Sharia is a threat to America,” “mosques are Trojan horses,” “radical Islam has infiltrated mainstream Muslim organizations,” “there is no such thing as moderate Islam — traditional Islam is radical,” “practicing Muslims cannot be loyal Americans.” These are some of the talking points (or, more correctly, propaganda points) of a newly-emerged extreme right-wing faction in the American body politic. Compared with the rising tide of Islamophobia in Europe, American society is still strikingly tolerant, pluralistic, and accommodating towards Islam and Muslims. However, that American broadmindedness is contracting all too quickly as the relatively small but well-connected anti-Muslim forces have taken their hate campaign to new heights in recent times. This xenophobic minority has put its agents in most key sectors of society. Even intelligence and law enforcement agencies are falling prey to the Islamophobia industry by inviting self-proclaimed “terrorism experts” to educate local officials and rank and file officers. These “experts” are, in fact, spreading fear and misinformation in the guise of training. They are brazen Islamophobes, actively promoting bigotry against the American Muslim community. Troubling indications of this trend are the three states have already passed anti-sharia laws and 18 others that are discussing similar bills. A Tennessee anti-sharia bill, which sought to make the observance of Islam a crime punishable by 15 years in prison, has been modified under pressure from civil liberties groups and the Muslim community, removing any direct reference to shariah but still posing significant threat to civil and religious liberty. A Texas bill would deny recognition of Muslim marriages. It is clear that the anti-sharia campaign targets everything related to Islam and Muslims, and in some of the most extreme cases, seeks to criminalize the very practice of Islam.

So how does this antipathy impact America? Yale professor Eliyahu Stern has observed: “The crusade against shariah undermines American democracy, ignores our country’s successful history of religious tolerance and assimilation, and creates a dangerous divide between America and its fastest-growing religious minority” (Don’t Fear Islamic Law in America, NY Times, September 2, 2011). Unfortunately, such voices of reason and moderation are too often drowned out by the raucous belligerents spreading their propaganda. So more and more might come to believe that practicing Muslims cannot be loyal Americans even though a recent Pew Research Center poll has found that Muslim Americans exhibit the highest level of integration among major American religious groups. And, notably, Muslim respondents expressed a greater degree of tolerance toward people of other faiths than did Protestants, Catholics, or Jews.

Who is feeding the Islamophobia in America? The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, conducted a six-month long study and has released a report entitled Fear Inc., The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America. Their research has found that the anti-shariah campaign is basically comprised of five interlocking elements. The first is the funding source: only seven contributors have given nearly $43million to anti-Muslim organizations and think tanks in the past decade. The second constituent part is played by five Islam-bashing scholars and policy experts and their organizations that act as the central nervous system responsible for producing and conveying the fictitious memes and fear-mongering talking points about Muslims and Islam. The Fear Inc. report says that Frank Gaffney’s neoconservative think tank, Center for Security Policy, has used its financial clout to misdefine shariah as the dominant totalitarian threat to America. Wajahat Ali, one of the Fear Inc. researchers, has rightly observed: “No religious Muslim scholar, let alone a practicing layman, would recognize this definition of Sharia, which, in reality, deals primarily with personal religious observances, including practices such as charitable giving, prayer, and honoring one’s parents, with precepts virtually identical to those of Christianity and Judaism.” The third interlocking element in the anti-shariah campaign is the religious right, and the fourth is comprised of the media enablers: “The mainstreaming of this fringe, extremist rhetoric is aided by media allies in network TV (Fox News), radio (Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck), online magazines (World Net Daily, Front Page Magazine) and the Islamophobia blogosphere (Jihad Watch), which give Islamophobe talking-heads an influential pulpit to broadcast their misinformation,” explains Wajahat Ali. The fifth category involves political players like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and their ilk.

While every individual is entitled to speak his/her mind, we do well to recognize that promoting the banning of shariah would be like promoting the banning of halakha (Jewish law) or cannon law (Christian law) observed by practicing American Jews and Christians respectively. More importantly, the anti-shariah campaign foments a hostile environment that can only stymie the growth of American Muslim inclination and readiness to integrate and contribute to a pluralistic and tolerant American narrative.

Denying Muslims’ constitutionally-granted right to practice their religion prompts Tariq Ramadan to pose the salient question: “Why is it today that when the Muslims are asking the same rights as others, they are perceived as not truly Americans?” Indeed, the anti-shariah exponents don’t have any answer to this question.

We must stand firm and speak out to counter the anti-shariah vitriol, remind its supporters to abide by the American constitution and promote the pluralistic values and vision of the American founding fathers.

Article Courtesy: Message International special issue on ICNA’s National Campaign “Defending Religious Freedom and Understanding Shariah”