While bans on Shariah -- the religious principles that govern how adherents conduct their lives -- are popping up in at least 15 states across the country, proposed legislation in Tennessee, proposed by State Sen. Bill Ketron and State Rep Judd Matheny, takes the panic over Shariah to a new extreme.
It doesn't merely ban courts from recognizing Shariah. It actually makes adherence to Shariah a felony -- essentially criminalizing observance of Islam. The bans in general, and the Tennessee bill in particular, reflect the absolute success a particular group of conservative activists have had in convincing Republican lawmakers that no meaningful distinction exists between adherence to Islam and terrorism.
They're also a reflection of the growing political influence of the groups that opposed the Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan -- the Park51 project know erroneously as the Ground Zero Mosque -- last summer. The author of the Tennessee bill, David Yerushalmi, is an attorney who represented the organization of Park51 opponent Pamela Geller, and he was the " Shariah expert" consulted for a report on the "threat" of Shariah published by Park51 opponent Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy presented to Republicans in Congress last year. Yerushalmi's extreme views haven't dissuaded Republican lawmakers. He has proposed that Congress declare war on Islam and opinedon the intellectual inferiority of blacks as a race. In 2006, he wrote that "Islam was born in violence; it will die that way."
There are already laws on the books criminalizing material support for terrorism. The Tennessee law would criminalize material support to "designated sharia organizations," and the state attorney general does the designating. In the bill, "sharia organizations," are 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." The assets of those targeted could be frozen, much the same way the Treasury Department can freeze the assets of organizations it deems "terrorist organizations." Just as Arizona's SB 1070 preempted federal immigration laws, Tennessee would have its own counterterrorism policy.
The provision "appears to be modeled after the federal laws and regulations governing, identifying, and stopping terrorist groups," explains Dan Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "There is absolutely no need for Tennessee to pass this law in the name of national security or public safety."
Like SB 1070 though, the Tennessee bill goes beyond federal authority. "The federal scheme makes only foreign states, foreign entities, or foreign persons, objects of such designations," says University of Texas Law Professor Robert Chesney, a national security law expert. "It sure looks like this Tennessee bill would permit designating any two or more Americans who happen to be Muslims and who support sharia." The authority resembles that the president used to impose immediate sanctions on Libya last week.
The bill has other similarities to SB 1070, in that it contains an exculpatory provision that states that the bill "neither targets, nor incidentally prohibits or inhibits, the peaceful practice of any religion, and in particular, the practice of Islam by its adherents." But just as SB 1070's prohibition on racial profiling was useless because everyone has a conception of what an "illegal immigrant" looks like, the Tennessee bill states flatly that any adherence to Shariah is indicative of a desire to overthrow the United States. By so defining Shariah, the Tennessee bill turns Muslim religious observance into an act of terrorism.
Abed Awad, an attorney who specializes in Islamic law says the bill as written, could criminalize basic religious observance by Muslims, since things like praying five times a day or giving charity are required by Shariah.
" Shariah tells me to fast, Shariah tells me to give charity to poor people," says Awad, rattling off two of the five pillars of Islam. "This law would ban the way a Muslim adheres to his religious requirements."
"The bill claims not to target Islam," Mach says, "but it states that the beliefs of every major school of Islam automatically constitute Shariah as defined in the bill." This Mach says, is in and of itself unconstitutional. "The Constitution plainly bars the state from taking positions on religious doctrine and declaring what anyone's faith really means."
It's difficult to see how the bill would pass constitutional muster, but as a political gesture meant to characterize all Muslims as national security threats, it may have already accomplished its objective. "The people who are behind this come put forth the same narrative as al-Qaeda," Tarin says, "that Muslims, Christians and Jews cannot live together in a pluralistic society."
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