Sharia law fears in US: A 'socially constructed' myth?
The first sentence of the First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits the government from establishing or favouring a religion, but that has not stopped several states from passing bills aimed at banning the use of Sharia law in American courts.
Michigan, home to a large Muslim community, is the latest state to consider anti-Sharia legislation after a state representative introduced a bill against “foreign laws that would impair constitutional rights”.
The proposal does not mention Islamic law specifically, but in a letter to fellow legislators, Representative Michele Hoitenga, a Republican who introduced the bill, said the measure aims to prohibit the practice of Sharia law and female genital mutilation, which is already illegal.
The bill was introduced weeks after a Detroit-area doctor was arrested for allegedly performing FGM procedures.
Nine states have passed bills against foreign laws. The measures, Muslim groups argue, are redundant and bigoted - they stoke Islamophobia and fuel fears that Muslim Americans are trying to impose their own legal codes on the public.
Anti-Sharia bills largely avoid referencing Islam to avoid legal challenges. In 2013, a federal judge struck down a 2010 legislation banning Islamic law in Oklahoma after a Muslim resident sued the state over it. But Sharia remains a consistent theme in the discussion and promotion of bills against foreign laws.
Sharia in Dearborn
The anti-Sharia proposal in Michigan comes amid unfounded claims in right-wing circles that parts of the state, namely Dearborn, a city with a high concentration of Arab and Muslim residents, are under Islamist control.
The city has long attracted anti-Muslim protesters, including armed demonstrators, denouncing Sharia.
State Representative Abdullah Hammoud, a Democrat who represents Dearborn, told Middle East Eye that he tried to argue with Hoitenga about the bill, but she proclaimed herself an expert on Islamic law and female genital mutilation.
Sharia is not a fixed codex of laws. That is the biggest misconception about Sharia.
- Dawud Walid, CAIR
“I approached her on the House floor trying to talk to her about it, and we had to agree to disagree,” he said.
Despite having 11 co-sponsors, the bill does not have enough support to pass, according to Hammoud.
“Female genital mutilation is a tragedy, but it’s a cultural issue, not a religious issue,” Hammoud told MEE.
He said lawmakers passing anti-Sharia bills, including those sponsoring the Michigan proposal, lack knowledge of Islam and Muslim communities.
“I know wholeheartedly, many of my colleagues, I’m the first Muslim they’ve ever met, and most of them don’t know the difference between Arabs and Muslims,” he said.
In a written statement, Hammoud called Hoitenga’s bill a “xenophobic, Islamophobic attack on Michigan’s Muslim community”.
Brian Stone, a Dearborn-based Democratic political strategist and a former candidate for the state legislature, said in this "post-fact era", people believe what they want, disregarding truth.
Stone, who has written several columns for the Huffington Post mocking allegations about Sharia law in Dearborn, slammed “ridiculous fake news stories” about it.
He questioned the intelligence and intentions of lawmakers pushing legislation against foreign laws.
“Politics has a way of attracting some of the best and the brightest, as well as some of the dumbest and the lowest,” he told MEE. “When we’re seeing a lot of these Sharia law bills coming out, we’re seeing people that are essentially shameless panderers to the worst parts of their own base. The ironic thing is that they don’t do anything to protect anyone.”
Hoitenga did not return MEE's request for comment.
Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Michigan, pointed to the “political hypocrisy” of stoking fear against Sharia law.
“The irony is that those are the exact same people who want more public display of Christianity,” he told MEE.
He said most advocates of anti-Islamic law measures also favour so-called religious freedom bills that critics say allow discrimination in the name of religion.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday allowing religious institutions to engage in partisan politics.
“On one end, they are for religious freedoms when they feel they can make Christianity predominant to discriminate against others who are not holding on to their theology, but at the same time, they complain about the non-existent threat of Islamic law potentially overriding American law,” Walid told MEE.
Stone also noted the double standards.
“The only group actually engaging in ‘Sharia law’ in the United states of America is the evangelical right,” Stone said. “If you put a turban on most evangelical pastors from these mega churches, the right wing would be out there protesting them, saying we don’t want Sharia law in the United States.”
Walid warned that such bills are not just symbolic; they can criminalise the religious rituals of various sects.
Jeremy Moss, a Democratic Jewish Michigan state representative, also sounded the alarm on the consequences of the bill against religious minorities.
The only group actually engaging in 'Sharia law' in the United states of America is the Evangelical right
-Brian Stone, political strategist
The lawmaker said the bill could be used to crack down on "bris ceremony" - circumcision of male babies.
"But beyond the intent of the bill, this proposal could end kosher slaughter of animals for Jews who observe dietary restrictions or criminalise 13-year-olds who say the blessing to drink the cup of wine during their bar mitzvah ceremony," Moss said in a statement. "Such a law is ludicrous, impossible to enforce, and worst of all, unconstitutional. It cannot be supported."
Louise Cainkar, a sociology professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said fear of Sharia law taking over the United States is a "socially constructed" myth to create political panic.
She said that during the 20 years she has conducted research in Muslim communities, she has never witnessed Muslims advocating to impose their own legal codes on society.
Cainker cautioned that anti-Sharia bills are damaging.
"They produce fear of Muslims, Islamophobia - and Islamophobia produces hate crimes and bullying and alienation," the professor told MEE. "That's been demonstrated in my work and the work of others. They're not innocuous; they're very potent, and they're intended to be that way."
What is Sharia
Walid, who is also an imam, said Sharia is a path toward faithfulness and pleasing God.
“Sharia is not a fixed codex of laws,” he said. “That is the biggest misconception about Sharia. There is no one fixed interpretation of Sharia. But we do know that it has certain objectives, which include the protection of the ability to practice religion, the protection of life, the protection of property and the protection of intellect. I don’t see any conflict between those objectives and the Bill of Rights of America and our Constitution.”
Islam is not unique in having religious rules and guidelines that affect daily life. Judaism has Halakha, a collection of religious laws, while Catholic theologians have set rules that stem from the philosophical notion of “natural law”.
Nevertheless, anti-Sharia advocates, such as anti-Muslim zealots Frank Gaffney and Pamela Geller, accuse Muslims of plotting to govern the world with Sharia law.
“That’s what Gaffney and Geller have in common with Daesh,” Walid said, referring to the Islamic State group. “It’s only extremists who believe Muslims seek to establish an Islamic rule that would force people and subjugate them, including people who aren’t Muslim, to obey Islamic law.”