Intimidating Muslims One Sharia Ban at a Time

Last week, Tennessee state Sen. Bill Ketron introduced a law that would prosecute any practice of Sharia law -- defined as a "legal-political-military doctrine" that promotes spread of "homegrown terrorism" -- as a felony, punishable with a minimum of 15 years of jail.

In no unclear terms, the law equates the practice of Sharia -- the oft-debated guidelines of the Muslim faith -- with treason. "Knowing adherence to Shariah and to foreign Shariah authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government -- with the aim of imposing Shariah on the people of this state," it reads.

Since Sharia adjudicates on matters of faith, not unlike the Catholic Canon or Jewish Halacha, both of which are are also guided by the decisions of "foreign authorities," the legislation proposed in Tennessee unfairly impinges upon the very structure of belief for practicing Muslims. Through his bill, Ketron, who hails from a district where plans to build a mosque this summer were impeded by city leaders and arsonists alike, appears not only to profile Muslims as terrorists but, in essence, to criminalize Islam on the whole.

Of course, this isn't the first Sharia scare. Given that the Tennessee bill criminalizes the private practice of Sharia, it is by far the most radical legislative assault on the religious freedom of Muslims to date. But lawmakers in 15 other states have introduced legislation banning the recognition of Sharia law in state courts. These bills not only stem from basic misunderstandings about Sharia law, their primary purpose is to intimidate Muslims by impeding on their right to invoke religious precedent in legal matters such as Sharia-compliant marriage contracts, wills, and financial proceedings.

Like the Vatican's Code of Cannon Law for Catholics, Sharia, derived from the revelations of the Quran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad and interpreted by various scholars of Islam , offers a nebulous outline on how to practice Islam and adjudicates on matters of faith. Given that many of the guidelines are highly specific instructions on religious rituals -- for instance, on whether feet must be washed in each pre-prayer ablution -- it is hard to imagine why legislators are so concerned with it.

On a purely factual level, Sharia law has in fact been used and recognized in U.S. courts. If enforced, a major effect of the laws, which include language banning not only the use of Sharia but foreign laws as well, could be that Sharia-compliant marriage contracts and international business contracts are rendered void.

But because most of these bills -- only a few, like Arizona, explicitly call for a ban on the use of " Shariah law, canon law, halacha and karma" in courts -- single out Sharia, they're likely to be found discriminatory to those practicing the Muslim faith. Despite this, the majority of these bills make no similarly broad sweeps, instead making Sharia their primary target. The First Amendment infringement means they cannot be upheld under the Bill of Rights; they come across as a means to intimidate Muslims from bringing their beliefs into the courthouse -- or the public forum more generally.

Striking them down will take court action, however. Muneer Awad, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), says that it was readily apparent to his organization that an evocatively titled 2009 Oklahoma ballot initiative called "The Save our State Amendment" lacked constitutional muster, and he felt obligated to contest the law after it passed by a 70-to-30 margin through courts. It "implicitly claimed that Muslims in America posed a unique threat, and that Shariah and Islam are incompatible with American laws and values -- which simply isn't true." In a lawsuit, Awad argued that the measure would not only bring about "excessive religious entanglement" by the state but that the resultant constitutional amendment would enshrine a "condemnation of his faith" in the state's highest legal document.

Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange of the Federal District Court in Oklahoma City, who blocked the legislation through an injunction, agreed with Awad and concluded that the amendment "conveys a message of disapproval of plaintiff's faith and, consequently, has the effect of inhibiting plaintiff's religion." She also found that Sharia law "lacks a legal character" and "is not 'law' but is religious traditions that differ among Muslims," positing that any effort to prohibit its consideration will be taken as an affront to basic civil liberties protected by the Constitution.

Conservatives don't view Sharia simply as a collection of religious traditions, of course. They fear that recognizing Sharia takes away from the sovereignty of U.S. laws. Others fear that Sharia law will gain clout in U.S. courts to justify acts practiced in Muslim-majority states such as polygamy or marital rape. In all of these "concerns," lawmakers are conveniently forgetting that U.S. law will invariably reign supreme in such instances. That's because U.S. law always overrides considerations of foreign law, rendering most of these laws entirely ineffective even if they do not directly clash with First Amendment protections. Even Sen. Mike Fair, the sponsor of South Carolina's anti- Sharia proposal, admitted that his bill does nothing more than "restate the obvious."

Of course, those are only the stated motivations. Conservatives are concerned with something other than "protecting" courtrooms from encroaching, albeit nonexistent, threat of Sharia law in America, which is why it's important to worry about these bills even if they are nonsense legally. Since religious laws have never before been banned from the courtroom, many see this current influx of legislation not as a call for secularization but as an effort to promote fear.

That's why it's time to make it clear that the U.S. was established as a plural democracy and fitted with a legal system that allows for this diversity to be accommodated. The legislation brought forth in over a dozen states not only negates this uniquely American system through a blatant disregard for the finer workings of the judicial system but also seeks to directly undermine basic civil liberties promised by the legal doctrines the legislation's sponsors purport to value above all else. If these measures do succeed, they will codify the Islamophobic sentiments already too prominent in U.S. political discourse and social life.

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