By John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani
Friday 25 March 2011 13.24 EDT
Fear of sharia in Tennessee
Senator Bill Ketron’s bill goes further than other irrational US reactions to Islam by attempting to outlaw sharia entirely
The United Kingdom has officially sanctioned the use of Islamic tribunals to settle some disputes, and in Germany, Islamic legal scholars such as Mathias Rohe have noted the compatibility of Islamic law to German law. The application of Islamic Law in Europe may remain controversial, but in the court of American public opinion, the idea of the Islamic legal system having any application in the US provokes massive social angst and sleazy political opportunism.
The southern state of Tennessee is the latest example of an irrational fear of Islam, which threatens American values and Muslim civil liberties. Bill Ketron Jr, a Republican State Senator in Tennessee who was first elected in 2002, introduced Senate bill 1028 to outlaw sharia. The fiery language of the bill is not unfamiliar in the American public square: In the lead-up to the 2010 elections we saw Newt Gingrich and other candidates for election, Islamophobic commentators and websites warn of the threat of sharia.
Senate bill 1028 goes further than other states have gone, attempting to outlaw sharia entirely. It provides the Tennessee state attorney general with the authority to designate “sharia organisations”, defined as “two or more persons conspiring to support, or acting in concert in support of, sharia or in furtherance of the imposition of sharia within any state or territory of the United States.” According to the bill, anyone who provides material support or resources to a designated sharia organisation could be charged with a felony and face up to 15 years of jail.
The bill simplistically equates sharia with terrorism without any proof and declares that it is “treasonous” and incompatible with the US constitution. It incorrectly identifies sharia as a political doctrine that “requires all its adherents to actively support the establishment of a political society based upon sharia as foundational or supreme law and the replacement of any political entity not governed by sharia with a sharia political order.” The bill goes on to state: “Sharia requires all its adherents to actively and passively support the replacement of American constitutional republic, including the representative government of this state with a political system based upon sharia.”
The very start of the language of the bill is profoundly disturbing. Sharia is falsely equated with Islamic law. Sharia refers to God’s will, laws, principles and values, found in the Qur’an and the traditions of the prophet Muhammad. Islamic law is the product of early jurists who interpreted and developed during it in the early Islamic centuries.
The hysteria continues with unsubstantiated accusations: “The knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government and the government of this state through the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions by the likely use of imminent criminal violence and terrorism with the aim of imposing sharia on the people of this state.”
The bill states that its goal is not to outlaw freedom of religion or the practice of Islam. However, though breathtakingly devoid of evidence of any call to impose sharia in Tennessee or anywhere else in the US, it uncritically condemns sharia and asserts that it represents a major threat to Tennessee, brush-stroking the vast majority of mainstream Muslims and Islam in America.
For its understanding of the nature and role of Islamic law, it relies on the rhetoric of terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden and the harsh application and punishments meted out in some parts of the world.
The bill is a cheap and transparent attempt by Ketron to pander to the misplaced fears of some citizens. In his district, there has been a heated debate over the building of a new mosque in Murfreesboro.
The fear that Islamic law could supplant American law is simply misplaced. While devout Jews can follow Jewish law and Christians follow their doctrines and laws and be at the same time fully American citizens, can Muslims? Of course. Like followers of other faiths, Muslims can and do fulfil the personal religious obligations of their faith without supplanting the laws of their country. The United Kingdom offers a good example: the rulings of a network of sharia courts are enforceable, when both parties to a dispute have agreed to abide by them, and where they do not conflict with English law, with the full power of the judicial system, through the county courts or high court.
Not only do anti-sharia in America fearmongers show an appalling ignorance of the meaning and nature of sharia as a moral compass but they also do not provide offer any evidence that their concerns have a solid foundation in reality. Moreover, their concerns fly in the face of hard evidence to the contrary. In America, Muslims, like members of other faiths, can draw on their religious law to govern internal matters and as a guide in family and social behaviour as long as they do not violate civil law.
Mr Ketron, are you listening?