When we talk about Shariah law, it’s very important to step back and ask ourselves what this means.
The Shariah is in general the idea of God’s law. There is no book or code of Shariah. There are specific schools of Islamic law, attempt to understand Shariah, attempt to codify it in a certain way. There are many different schools that disagree with one another.
It’s interesting when you mention the word Shariah to say somebody in America, a typical American, what are they going to say? “People are going to get their hands chopped off, people are getting stoned, killed by stoning, women covered up etc. etc.” These are all for Americans extremely negative images.
If you go to man and woman in the streets of Egypt and you say the word Shariah to them, what polls show is that over 90% of people in Egypt associate the word Shariah with very positive notions: Things like political justice, social justice and gender justice. So you see right away that there is a completely different basic immediate emotional response to the word Shariah.
Now I think it would be useful for people in the United States to understand this, because what happens when Americans hear that let’s say one time the head of the transitional government in Libya said that Shariah will be main part of our law in the new Libya. Americans may start to panic and say “Oh my Gosh, hands being cut off, stoning, what’s going to happen in Egypt and Libya? What have we done? What have we done in aiding these rebels?”
But what we have to remember is that’s not what this governmental official is thinking, and that’s not what the people to whom he is speaking are feeling when he says the word Shariah. What they are thinking about is justice, cultural authenticity, a destiny that we make for ourselves and not imposed from the outside, Muslims allowed to understand their religion and whose values are respected. Like I said: Gender, political and social justice.
So I think that Americans need to realize that Shariah for other humans means very different than it does for them. They also need to understand that the word Shariah is very much like the word constitution in the United States. So, in the United States you watch a presidential debate a candidate gets up and says we need to go back to the constitution, the constitution says this and the founding fathers say that. And all the people and the audience immediately overwhelmed by these waves of patriotism and affection for the founding fathers and commitment to their constitution and its ideals.
Of course this means absolutely nothing. This presidential candidate might never implement any law that supports the constitution and might even implement laws that are against the constitution. This idea, this emotion that the presidential candidate is bringing up in the people’s hearts is precisely like that, it’s an emotion, it’s an idea. And it’s an idea that is never necessarily going to be implemented in reality.
Certainly one of the things that comes up in people’s minds both inside Muslim countries and in Western countries is that the way that Shariah law and visions of roles of women in society and the rights that women have in society. Again, I would really say that it’s important to distinguish between the idea of Shariah and the fact that it’s brought up by a politician or political party and what that actually means or would ever mean in reality.