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Midwest Muslims Work To Change Anti-Shariah Movement

Islamic Circle Of North America

In the last year, a movement to limit or outlaw Shariah, or Islamic Law, has been gaining momentum in the U.S.

Legislators in more than 20 states, including Kansas and Missouri, have introduced new laws they say are needed to prevent the spread of fundamentalist Islam. And many of the Republican presidential candidates have spoken out in favor of these laws. According to critics, however, these efforts are anti-Muslim, and in the past couple of months, they’ve been working to change the tide in the Shariah debate.

Shariah Education Campaign

Just after an early evening prayer service at the Islamic Center in Olathe, most of members of the mosque have already hurried to get home and eat dinner with their families. But Riyaz Lareef has something else on his mind. During the last year, he’s anxiously watched as state legislatures around the country consider laws that would ban courts from enforcing Shariah. Lareef says these laws are misguided, and that the public needs to understand Shariah is central to the life of a Muslim.

"Without Shariah, Islam is not possible because Shariah includes believing in the one God. Shariah includes believing in prophet Muhammad, prophet Jesus, prophet Moses. Shariah includes doing worship, like prayer and fasting and making the pilgrimage to Mecca and giving charity. And taking care of our neighbors, taking care of the poor, taking care of religious minorities. Religious freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of religion. It's all part of part of Shariah. So if we were to say that I'm not following Shariah, we are essentially saying that we are not Muslims."

Lareef is a Board of Directors for the Islamic Circle of North America. This national organization is working with local mosque and Islamic groups to educate the public about Shariah through billboard, radio spots and a toll-free ask-a-Muslim hotline. Lareef says that the anti-Shariah laws are not just a danger to Muslim; they undermine the religious freedom of all Americans.

"The campaign that we are trying to do is not only to defend the religious freedom of the Muslims, but to defend the religious freedom of all Americans. We stand in solidarity with all other faith groups, with all other religious leaders, to protect our faith."

Muslims believe that Shariah was given to them by God through Muhammad and by later Muslim scholars. The rules and guidelines of Shariah are laid out in the Quran and the Sunnah, which is the teaching-by-example of Muhammad. Shariah is the source of rules many Muslims follow which forbid alcohol, gambling and certain foods. But it’s more than just a list of dos and don’ts. It actually describes the Muslim way to deal with just about any situation life might throw at you. It describes how followers should settle conflicts, conduct business, get married, get divorced, and write wills. And in their private lives, many American Muslims have developed ways to follow Shariah in a non-Shariah society.

"In Islam, interest in prohibited. We cannot take interest or give interest. So today in the United States, we have provisions available for a Muslim to take mortgages from banks that are Islamic. These banks don't deal with interest. And Muslims, they get loans with them, and they write contracts with them which are non-interest based. They call it Shariah-compliant financing, meaning there is no interest in that financing."

Perceptions of Shariah

Most of Shariah practice is limited to pretty mundane, day-to-day activities. But a lot of the general public is still concerned about Shariah, and that’s understandable, especially considering the way it’s portrayed in the media. Many argue the rights of individuals are neglected and that women receive unfair treatment under Shariah. In divorce, for example, men have more options than women. In some interpretations of Shariah, a husband is permitted to beat a wife who fails to fulfill her responsibilities. The penal codes, which call for severe punishment of certain crimes, have also drawn a lot of attention. KU law professor Raj Bhala, who teaches Shariah, explains the punishment for shoplifting.

"That is a crime which is a crime against God, a claim of God, a crime against the religion, and the punishment – it’s know in Arabic as haqq allah crime. And there are a limited number of haqq allah offenses. And they are seen as the most serious offenses that one can commit, triggering the most serious punishments. And these punishments are generally – not all of them, but generally – spelled out in the Quran, and saraqa happens to be one of them – theft – where after the first offense, the right hand would be cut off, and then the second offense would be left foot. And then thereafter would be imprisonment or flogging.”

However, there are actually a very small number of places in the world where the most severe practices of Shariah are carried out.

“Most Muslims would agree that these offenses - while serious, of course –the punishments for them need to and have been interpreted in different ways so as not to trigger that strict cutting off of a limb. And when you look at polls of Muslims around the world, including the Arab Muslim world, most of them would not want the most severe forms of Islamic criminal law to be their own law.”

Of the billion and a half Muslims in the world, few very are actually interested in seeing Shariah carried out literally in their governments or communities.

“A tiny minority of countries and jurisdictions actually impose such punishments. There are roughly 57 countries in the Organization of Islamic Conference, and the three where these punishments might be imposed, depending on the case, would be the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the parts of Somalia where Al-Shabaab is in control. I guess a fourth you could add is some of the northern Nigerian states.”

The way people practice Shariah often has as much to do with their personal choice and culture as with the writings of Islam. Muhammad lived about 1400 years ago, and the way Muslims translate his teachings to modern times is the cause of a lot of debate. Some fundamentalists take all teachings literally; some take them as metaphor. Bhala says Christians can relate by looking at their own faith.

“In the New Testament, the word of God, son of God, Jesus, is that if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. That is the literal word of God accepted by Christians, that it’s the son of God, it’s Jesus speaking. He’s saying if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Is the literal word of God interpreted literally? No. The Christian world does not interpret that literally. Otherwise, a lot of us, myself included, would be cutting off our own hands because they have caused us to sin in the past.”

Shariah In The Courts

But in the past years, fundamentalist and radical Muslims have been making their voices heard around the world. Since the start of the Arab Spring, the Muslim world has seen a rise in the influence of Islamists in a few countries like Egypt and Tunisia. These politicians are pushing to make Shariah the law of the land in their countries. In the United States, courts have seen a few cases where rapists or murders have tried to justify their violence by claiming that they are acting in accordance with Shariah. UMKC law professor Rana Lehr-Lenhardt, who also specializes in Shariah, explains one of the most famous of these recent cases which went to court in 2009.

“It’s SD vs. MJR. In that case, there’s a young woman who is married. She’s from Morocco, and shortly after her marriage, her husband asked her to cook food and different things, and she didn’t know how to do it. She didn’t do it right. So one of the guests left, according to her testimony, according to the case. He beat her, and then he raped her, and this happened again and again and again. When the Imam testified – the religious leader testified – he said, well, yes, under Islam a woman must be sexually available to her husband. So when it first went to court, the judge in the family division held that there was no criminal sexual contact – that there was no rape – because the husband and the Imam testified under Islam a man can always demand sex from his wife. And so there’s no criminal intent. So the jude the family court basically held that the husband was not guilty of sexual assault and criminal sexual conduct.”

Anti-Shariah activists point to this case as proof that the US needs laws which would bar courts from considering Shariah. However, that’s not the end of the New Jersey case. In 2010, the decision was appealed.

“In the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division, the appellate court held that the trial court had erred, because the trail court focused on, well, his religion didn’t prohibit that practice. But under the law, the law does prohibit that, under US law, the law does prohibit it, and it doesn’t matter that under Shariah, under his religious law, that those actions were not prohibited, and therefore, the husband was found to have committed sexual assault and criminal sexual contact.”

The 1st Amendment of the Constitution’s free exercise clause allows Americans to practice their religion but that freedom end when it comes to breaking US laws. When the New Jersey court decided to enforce Shariah instead of US law, it violated one of the most basic tenants of the Constitution, the Supremacy Clause. Raj Bhala explains.

“Under our American Constitutional structure, it is not possible for a judge to ground a holding in his or her opinion based on law other than that of the United States or of his or her state. A judge cannot say I am reaching this result because of something that is said in the Quran or something the prophet Mohammad said.”

Oklahoma Legislation

But by 2011, the momentum of anti-Shariah couldn’t be stopped. Among the many bills that came up in state legislatures last year, the most successful was in Oklahoma. Seventy percent of voters approved a bill that would ban courts from enforcing Shariah or any foreign law. The new law stunned Oklahoma’s 10,000 Muslims, including Munner Awad, who had written a Shariah-based will. He was concern that, even though his will complied entirely with Oklahoma law, it might be still invalidated simply because it was based on Shariah. Rana Lehr-Lehnardt explains that Munner Awad fought back.   

“He challenged the law in federal district court - and I’m reading some of this from the 10th Circuit opinion: he objected to the amendment singling out his religion for negative treatment. He claims the amendment’s implementation would cause multiple adverse consequences such as: stigmatizing him and others who practice the Muslim faith; inhibiting the practice of Islam; disabling a court from probating his last will and testament, which contains references to Shariah law; and limiting the relief Muslims can obtain from Oklahoma state courts; and fostering excessive entanglement between the government and his religion. So he went to federal district court, and then the district court then  granted a preliminary injunction.”

In injunction has upheld on January 10th of this year, and the case will next go to federal district court, where the merits of the case will be heard. Muslims and 1st amendment advocates will finally get their chance to challenge anti-Shariah legislation. And they have cause to be optimistic, because the chance of a law that specifically mentions Shariah staying on the books is very slim. KU Constitutional Law professor Richard Levy explains.

“I guess I would say highly likely that a law that targeted a religion would be considered unconstitutional. Under the Supreme Court’s case law, the law might be upheld if it were narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental interest. So if the government could show there was a very, very strong interest, like protect millions of lives and things like that or other similarly important interests. And then that the law targeting the religion was really necessary in order to avoid that harm or serve that compelling interest, it might survive Constitutional scrutiny. But I’m not aware of any case where the US Supreme Court has said that a law targeting a religion or religious practice was Constitutional.” 

Missouri Legislation

In Missouri, 2011 saw three different bills that would’ve affected Shariah. But the most successful of these didn’t even mention Shariah by name. House Bill 708, sponsored by Representative Paul Curtman would’ve simply banned courts from enforcing any foreign law. And that would’ve included Shariah. The bill received a lot of attention in St. Louis, where it was drew protest from Muslim groups and the local ACLU chapter. Other questions the impact such a broadly-worded law could have on international trade. Still, the bill passed through the House. Time ran out in last year’s legislative session before the bill came up for a vote in the Senate.

This year, Paul Curtman is back with a new message.

“Our Constitution protects people’s rights to be Muslim or to be Baptist like me, or to be Catholic or to be Jewish. And I think that this bill that I’m introducing goes a long way to make sure that people’s religious freedoms are protected. This new bill that I have, we went a long way from the bill that I introduced last year.”

His new bill, 1512, builds on last year’s bill with several new clauses including one which states that it could not be used to limit free exercise of religion.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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