In Kansas, the Islamic code of laws called Shariah has drawn a lot of suspicion and debate during the past year.
In May, the state legislature effectively banned consideration of Shariah in court, a move that some critics have called redundant and anti-Islamic. But Kansas is also home to a program that teaches Shariah in an unlikely setting: Army officer training at Fort Leavenworth.
Dr. Raj Bhala spends most of his week teaching International and Comparative Law at KU, and he’s become well-known in Lawrence and around the country for teaching Shariah, or Islamic Law. Bhala is actually the first non-Muslim to write a textbook on Shariah, which was published in 2011. But on Monday nights, his class is little different. Instead of law students, the florescent classroom lights shine down on a room of 19 big, short-haired men, most of whom wear military uniforms. Unlike your typical Midwestern L2, Shariah and Islam are not abstract ideas to these students.
For the last 3 years, Dr. Bhala has driven up to Fort Leavenworth one night a week to teach Shariah at the Command and General Staff College. His class is part of a graduate school program for mid-career military officers. Everyone in the class has been in the service for around 10 years, and they’re all either majors or about to become a majors. Most are Army, but other branches train here as well. The majority of the men in this class have spent most of their careers in the Middle East, and most will probably return there after graduating from this program. Realizing this, Raj Bhala says it’s vital that these students have a complete and balanced understanding of Islam.
“Some things that I say or do in class,” explains Bhala, “can make a life or death difference in a situation that I couldn’t possibly now foresee. When they have to make a quick judgment about what or how to say something to someone in a foreign country. So what I teach them, what I say to them, really matters.”
Command and General Staff School
The Command and General Staff School, which is part of the College, is pretty big deal for the army. All majors go through this intermediate-level training, and most of them do it at Fort Leavenworth. This is an intensive, 10-month program which ends in a Master’s degree in Global and International Studies. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Schmidt explains that, about 5 years ago, when the school wanted to upgrade its Master’s program, it decided to look outside its own walls.
“We started talking with members of the University of Kansas,” says Lt. Col. Schmidt, “members of our faculty, and then members of the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg to determine what’s most appropriate. A lot of this, quite frankly, is just part of where we’ve been in the last 11 years, which is the Middle East. So we thought that it was important to dive headfirst into what is Shariah law.”
The College brought Dr. Bhala on board to teach the very same Shariah class that he teaches at KU law. It’s a semester-long look at Islamic law, and the philosophy and history that has shaped it.
Importance of teaching Shariah
One evening, Bhala lectures on the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam, and how these dominations view leadership in the Muslim world. Despite the nuance and detail of the professor’s lesson, the students seem to follow him every step of the way.
Bhala says that many of the militant or terrorist groups that the military encounters in the Middle East falsely claim to be acting in accordance with the teachings of Islam. He wants his students to understand the facts about the faith.
“Much of what is proclaimed in the name of Islam,” says Dr. Bhala, “and is used to justify violent actions, is utterly unIslamic. And so a key theme of the course is distinguishing what is authentically Islamic teaching and sound Shariah doctrine from what is not but proclaimed to be by people who are anything but Islamic but yet pose a threat to our security and the security of our allies. That means that we have to delve into what the Shariah says and why it says it, what the rationales are for it, and sources are for it. And then identify and isolate some of the, if I may say, deviant propositions that are not authentic. And then explain how they came about, and how to deal with them.”
Special Operations Forces
The students in this program are part of special operations forces. This includes elite units like Green Berets, Rangers and Navy SEALS. Some of the work that special operations forces do is the high-risk ambushes and raids you see in movies, but a lot of it isn’t. Special Operations Forces are also Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations. They try to stabilize violate areas by developing economies and assisting local governments. They also work to counter insurgency. Dr. Bhala believes that the work of special operation forces can actually prevent warfare from breaking out in unstable areas.
“When the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 was passed in the Kennedy administration, and the idea of Special Operations -- which pre-dates that -- had blossomed more, there were three basic pillars of what these folks are trying to do. One is engagement with local populations. And that can be through the Peace Corps; it can be through Civil Affairs, you know, working with the local populations. The second is development because a lot of problems really are rooted in poverty. And the third is defense. And all of them understand that very well – that the defense component is one of three pillars in their overall mission.”
Challenges of teaching Shariah
Later in the evening’s class, Dr Bhala’s lecture turns to what he says is one of the more challenging topics he teaches: literalism in Islam. In recent years, Islamists have increased their influence in the Middle East and Northern Africa. They believe that a strict, literal interpretation of Islam should be the law of the land. But Dr. Bhala teaches that Islamists are just part of a broad spectrum of beliefs in the Islamic world.
“There’s a lot of emphasis nowadays from recent events about literalism and reading a text that is accepted by adherents to it as the literal word of God that it need to be interpreted literally. But if we think about it carefully, something that is believed to be the literal word of God need not be interpreted literally.”
Now, critics and some Muslim leaders have accused the US military of being anti-Islamic, and they point to things like the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison as proof. But Raj Bhala says he hasn’t heard anti-Islamic sentiments from the students he’s taught.
“Absolutely not. I think they have a genuine intellectual curiosity and deep professional interest.”
Dr. Bhala says teaching the class is his way of giving back to people who serve this country. He also believes teaching Shariah has the potential to encourage peace around the world.
“I really do believe, perhaps naively, that if we have better educated professionals, American professionals, out around the world, we can be a force for good and build peace and tolerance through our better understanding of the peoples with whom we’re interacting. Because what are the classic sources of conflict through the ages? It’s misunderstanding that leads to stereotype and prejudice, isolation and conflict. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”