Sharia: A Fabricated Threat

In recent weeks, “sharia” has become the favorite buzzword of many a politician, blogger, and pundit.  We heard the word at Peter King’s second round of Muslim radicalization hearings, in remarks made by presidential hopefuls at the recent GOP debate, and in T.V. appearances by blogger/activists who claim to fight “radical Islam.”

We also heard it on the floors of state legislatures during the last several months as more than 20 states proposed bans against the usage of “sharia, foreign, or Islamic law” in U.S. courts.  A few bans passed, like the one in Oklahoma, where 70% of voters assented to a constitutional amendment banning the consideration of sharia or international law in U.S. courts.

Why this continuous discussion of and fervent concern for “creeping sharia?”  Is it really a threat?

Despite the claims of the aforementioned groups—that Muslim radicals are attempting to supersede the Constitution by implementing sharia law—Muslim-Americans have not been pushing for anything of the sort.  If they had been, I’m sure we would have heard about it—the media would be all over it.  As of now, we have only heard about sharia from non-Muslim newsmakers, those who tell us that it poses a threat but have no solid evidence to back up their claims (except an intentionally-botched understanding of Islam.)

I like to believe that people act with good intentions, and I really hate to claim that those who perpetuate this fear of “creeping sharia” are doing so to get political points, a new book contract, or the chance to be an “expert” on CNN.  But I can’t find any other reason why so many people—with very prominent voices in our society—are devoting their lives to making Muslim-Americans’ lives so unnecessarily hard.

Scapegoating Islam and Muslims has become politically and financially rewarding, and people like Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller, Rep. Allen West, and Brigitte Gabriel have realized that.  Playing on Americans’ ignorance of Islam, they and others have created and exploited a climate of fear to get reelected, make money, or experience fame, whether or not they are willing to admit that to their audience, or even to themselves.

The easiest way these Islamophobes (I use this term to talk about people who manufacture and then capitalize on fear of Islam) to do their work is by taking a previously unknown but seemingly menacing word like sharia, and attach their own sinister meanings and interpretations.  They simplify their message about sharia, and purposefully ignore the nuance and complexity that surrounds sharia, or any other religious concept for that matter.

This is why it’s all the more important for me and others to help disseminate the actual meaning of sharia.  I hope to do that here with the help of a few good articles on the subject.  The three pieces from which I will quote extensively are the best articles I’ve read on the topic because they present the complexities and real meaning of sharia clearly and, most importantly, without getting defensive or huffy.  If I was Muslim and my religious practice was being questioned and misconstrued everyday, I would get pretty annoyed and angry, and I’m pretty sure that frustration would show up in my writing.  So I’m amazed by the poise with which these Muslims (two of the following experts quoted are Muslim) respond to ignorance and hate in both word and speech.  I’m sure it’s a hard thing to do.

What is sharia?

Literally, sharia means “a path to the watering hole” in Arabic.  And that’s what sharia is—a guide to living a good, Islamic life.  But as Georgetown professor and Islam expert, John Esposito puts it, “many Muslims and non-Muslims have come to confuse and use the terms ‘Shariah’ and ‘Islamic law’ interchangeably.”  Sharia is not a law book, he says, but a guide for Muslims informed by the Qur’an and the sayings and lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad.  “Early jurists used revelation as well as reason to create a body of laws to govern their societies. But, over time, these man-made laws came to be viewed as sacred and unchangeable.”

As Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, the chair of the Council for a Parliament of World Religions, describes, “sharia is not one monolithic body” and not all parts are agreed upon by every Muslim:

“There are literally hundreds and thousands of books written in the last 1,400 years, in multiple languages in places as diverse as Timbuktu in Africa to Bukhara in Central Asia, with millions of opinions, judicial reviews, etc. on various issues. Together, they form the body of sharia.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who heads the Cordoba Initiative and the Park 51 building project in Manhattan, has this to say:

“At the core of Shariah law are God’s commandments, revealed in the Old Testament and revised in the New Testament and the Quran. The principles behind American secular law are similar to Shariah law – that we protect life, liberty and property, that we provide for the common welfare, that we maintain a certain amount of modesty.”

Sharia: Living the faith

When Muslims carry out their daily life as believers, they are carrying out sharia.  Imam Mujahid’s description of lived sharia is probably the best one I’ve heard:

“You might have seen a government-required sign at a McDonald’s restroom telling employees to wash their hands. Muslims do this as a part of living their faith, which is called sharia in Arabic.

“When Muslims begin anything they say, ‘in the name of God’ –that is sharia. When they greet each other, they smile and say, ‘Assalamu Alaikum’ (peace be with you) –that is sharia.

“Muslims often avoid taking out mortgages due to the sharia prohibition on Riba (usury/interest). This has led to the establishment of the worldwide Islamic financial industry and Dow Jones Islamic Market Indexes. The latter select companies that don’t deal in weapons, pornography, gambling, tobacco, or alcohol, etc. These investments are similar to 30 other ‘faith-based’ investment options, like the Catholic Values Index. These are examples of the practice of sharia in the realm of business.” 

Sharia: The bad parts we hear about

When discussing sharia, critics of Islam often bring up the violent and “sharia-enforced” punishments we hear about in places like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.  They tend to reduce sharia to its penal code, which as I’ve explained is only a small part of the greater guide for living.

Imam Mujahid addresses sharia’s penal code and many Americans’ concerns about it:

“It is true that Islamic criminal law has been at times implemented harshly, and even wrongly, by some Muslims. Such an application of Islamic criminal law is void of God’s mercy, which is considered His primary attribute in Islam.

“There are parts of sharia—[the sometimes-violent penal code]–that Muslim Americans don’t implement in their daily lives.

“Since Muslims ran a civilization for over a thousand years, they naturally developed a body of laws to deal with governing society. These laws deal with issues ranging from fighting neighborhood crime to international laws of war and peace.

“Muslim Americans don’t practice these laws since they deal with the realm of government and state. sharia emphasizes that the rule of law in a society must be implemented by the state. It considers vigilantism a major crime and a sin. Therefore, sharia prohibits Muslims from practicing this part of Islam on an individual basis.”

Imam Abdul Rauf has this to add:

“Where there is a conflict [between secular law and the Qur’an and the teachings of Muhammad], it is not with Shariah law itself but more often with the way the penal code is sometimes applied. Some aspects of this penal code and its laws pertaining to women flow out of the cultural context.

“The religious imperative is about justice and fairness. If you strive for justice and fairness in the penal code, then you are in keeping with moral imperative of the Shariah.”

A few final words from Imam Mujahid:

“When some American pundits call sharia, ‘a growing threat to the United States,’ Muslim Americans wonder what in the world are they talking about. Sharia is overwhelmingly concerned with personal religious observance, not with constitutions and laws. All observant Muslims practice sharia. Defining sharia as a threat, therefore, is the same thing as saying that all observant Muslims are a threat.

“To understand sharia is to understand Islam. Criminalizing sharia will criminalize the practice of Islam in America.”

Islamophobic politicians and pundits often claim they have “no problem” with peaceful, practicing Muslims; they simply have a problem with sharia.  But, as I’ve discussed here, Muslims can’t be Muslim without sharia—without greeting one another with a friendly “Assalaamu alaikum,” without performing ablutions, and without giving charity.

Preventing our Muslim friends and neighbors from doing these things just seems senseless.

__________

Main articles cited:

-The complete article featuring John Esposito, which also defines other buzz words like “jihad” and “taqiyya”

-Imam Mujahid’s op-ed

-Imam Abdul Rauf’s op-ed

Thoughts on King’s “radicalization” hearings

“I remember doing a number of radio interviews [right after 9/11] saying we can’t do to the Muslims what we did to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.” (New York magazine)

Peter King at today's hearing

These are the words of Peter King, a long-time House representative from Long Island and the head of the House Homeland Security committee.  Before 9/11, he was an active supporter of his Muslim community; he even spoke and cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the Islamic Center of Long Island.  As his quote suggests, he was concerned that post-9/11 backlash would lead to unwarranted suspicion of Muslims and unjust government actions taken against the group as a whole.

However, today King seems to be encouraging the climate of mistrust he sought to avoid ten years ago.

This morning, the House committee on Homeland Security—of which King is the head— began a hearing to examine “the Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” King is concerned that Muslims in America are becoming more radicalized and that the Muslim community is doing little to counter that trend.

Are King’s concerns legitimate?

In one respect, yes.  We have seen an increase in the attempted domestic terror plots

Figure 2

committed by American Muslims in the years since 9/11 (Triangle Center on Terror and Homeland Security, Figure 2).  This attempted terrorism is considered a strong indicator of radicalization.  (It is important to note that the number of terror attempts dropped by half, despite the fact that the attempts received more media attention.)

An increase in radicalization, however, cannot only be ascribed to members of the Muslim community.   In 2010, the number of hate groups operating in the US reached its peak, topping 1,000.  Some of these groups include neo-Nazis, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, Klansmen, and black separatists (Southern Poverty Law Center).  “Other hate groups on the list target gays or immigrants, and some specialize in producing racist music or propaganda denying the Holocaust,” the center’s report also says.

Individuals, often associated with these organizations, have attempted to carry out terror plots in the US as well.  “In an 11-day period this January, a neo-Nazi was arrested as he headed for the Arizona border with a dozen homemade grenades; a terrorist bomb attack on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash., was averted when police dismantled a sophisticated bomb; and a man who officials said had a long history of antigovernment activities was arrested in a car filled with explosives outside a packed mosque in Dearborn, Mich.” (Southern Poverty Law Center .) (I am particularly troubled that these instances of terrorism, especially the last one in which Muslims were targeted, were hardly reported in the mainstream media, unlike terror plots undertaken by Muslims.)

Clearly, radicalization is not just a phenomenon we see in a small number of Muslim Americans; it is a phenomenon that has been seen among whites, blacks, Christians and others across America.  As Mississippi representative Bennie Thompson, a ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee said during the hearing, radicalization is a nation-wide problem affecting Americans in all ethnic and religious groups.  Because of this, he called on King to hold a hearing to address the radicalization of anti-government and white supremacist groups as well.

He, many others, and myself believe that pigeonholing one group, as King has done with this hearing, is dangerous.  It not only ignores important security threats (the 1,000 hate groups I just mentioned), but it has the potential to create further radicalization among American Muslim individuals, who may feel that their government does not trust them, simply because of their religious background.

Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, who agreed to testify but didn’t agree with the specificity of the hearings, said, “If you start to make a community feel besieged, they’re just going to feel more reticent. It’s just a natural human reaction to feel like a target.” (New York Magazine)

He also recognizes the need to investigate all forms of radicalism in order to better secure our country.  “If you took every Muslim in America and put them in a jail, it wouldn’t have stopped Gabby Giffords from being shot. It wouldn’t have saved the people in Oklahoma City. It wouldn’t have saved the guard at the Holocaust Museum. It wouldn’t have saved the students at Columbine or Virginia Tech. To me, it’s like he’s saying we’re going to deal with drugs, but we’re only going to deal with black drug dealers.”  (New York Magazine)

Even the title of the hearing itself is problematic, because it places the emphasis on the Muslim “community,” not on individuals.  This title only increases the perception that the US government is at war with Islam, and as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative has expressed, this perception has the potential to increase radicalization of Muslims abroad.

Now I’ll turn to King’s second concern: that the American Muslim community has not done enough to prevent radicalization and stop violence.

This claim, however, has been refuted by the Justice community and specifically by Attorney General Eric Holder, who asserts that the Muslim community has been highly helpful in providing tips that have resulted in the disruption of terror plots. (CBS)

According to the same Triangle Center study, fellow Muslims were most often those who provided initial information to law enforcement about Muslim American terror plots since 9/11 (48 out of 120 cases).

Though King disagrees, he has not produced any sources to support his claim that Muslims are uncooperative. (New York Magazine)

I also take issue with part of King’s list of witnesses.  He was right to ask Muslim representative Ellison to testify, yet he failed to invite the other Muslim representative, Andre Carson (who represents my district in Indiana.) No federal law enforcement officials were present; only a sheriff from Los Angeles was.  Thankfully, John Dingell, who represents Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large Muslim population, was invited to speak, and reminded us that we can’t let a neo-McCarthyism—focused this time on Islam instead of Communism—take root.

I was also disappointed to see that mainstream Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (of the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement) and Imam Mohamed Magid (of the Islamic Society of North America—located outside Indianapolis!) were not asked to testify.  Only Zudhi Jasser (of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy), who was unknown to me until the hearings, was present.

Aside from Ellison and Dingell, it seems that the witnesses were brought in to back King’s own misguided positions, not to provide the full range of discourse needed.

It is hard to take King or this hearing seriously, not only because his list of witnesses, but also because of previous statements he’s made about American Muslims and his support of the Irish terrorist group, the IRA.

In 2004, King supported the claim that 80% of mosques in American were run by radical imams, and in 2007, he said that America had “too many mosques.”  The first statement is clearly unsubstantiated, false, and ultimately offensive to American Muslims and their supporters like me.  And his second statement questions Muslims’ First Amendment rights to express their religion by building places of worship.

King is strongly opposed to Islamic terrorism, yet he staunchly supported the IRA, a violent terrorist group that operated in Northern Ireland.  Tom Parker, a counterterrorism expert at Amnesty International, expresses my thoughts well: “My problem is with the hypocrisy.  If you say that terrorist violence is acceptable in one setting because you happen to agree with the cause, then you lose the authority to condemn it in another setting.” (Washington Post)

Why King decided to hold this hearing in unclear to me.  The reasons he cites are, as I hope I’ve shown, incomplete and misinformed.  While I do not have any definite answers, I fear politics may play a part.  As the Park 51 Center made headlines last summer in anticipation of the midterm elections, this hearing is making the news as talk of the 2012 elections begins.  The American Muslim community became a political pawn last summer, and I fear that the same will happen in the future, because of this hearing.  Sadly, the climate of fear of Muslims, created and sustained by politicians and the news media, can be easily exploited for political gain.

Through today’s hearing, King hoped to increase America’s security and protect its values.  However, I’m afraid the hearing chipped away at both, just as anti-Japanese policy did 70 years ago.  We cannot let the Muslim Americans of the 2000s become the Japanese Americans of the 1940s.

I don’t think it is overly dramatic to say that this hearing could be the first step down a dangerous and bigoted path that our country has unfortunately walked before.

Many people might counter me, saying, “That could never happen again. Today is different.  We are more tolerant now.”

Sadly, I’m not so sure.

For more reflections on the hearing, check out:

Religious leaders comment on the significance of the hearing on the Washington Post’s  “On Faith” blog.

A bit disappointed; Jon’s brilliance; and our Sufi allies

A bit disappointed with Brian, Harry, and Barack

A segment on tonight’s NBC Nightly News urked me a little bit.  The segment was about Obama’s statements regarding the construction of the Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan, and how Muslims have the same religious rights as anyone else.  When introducing the story, Brian Williams describes the situation as a “fight” into which Obama waded.  Why use this word?  True, combativeness does hike up ratings, butit does not help us to better understand the nuances and details of the situation.  It further perpetuates the simplified “us vs. them” mentality that infects important and complicated political, societal, and cultural debates happening within our country.

As the piece continues, the “mosque” in question is not referred to correctly.  It is not simply a mosque–and even if it was a mosque, big deal!  The Cordoba House (it is hardly referred to by its proper name) is a cultural and community center, dedicated to bringing people of all faiths together, as well as providing swimming pool, workout facilities, and a place of worship.  Basically, it is a beefed up YMCA or JCC open to anyone.

Major news outlets must begin referring to this place as the Cordoba House.  Generalizing the Corboda House as a “mosque” or “Islamic center” only mystifies it and allows people to place their own views or ideas onto it.

I am also sad to see that Harry Reid is against the Cordoba House.  Many Democrats look up to him for guidance about their political and social views, and his denouncement of the Cordoba House encourages more Americans to do the same.

I was initially thrilled with Obama’s remarks at the White House Iftaar this past weekend.  (An iftaar is the meal with which Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.)  But since he expressed his support for the Cordoba House and received backlash from some politicians and pundits about it, he has moved backward on that statement of support.  Obama has tried before to distance himself from the Muslim community when conservatives claimed he was Muslim during the 2008 election.  That was an opportunity to have an important national discussion about Muslims in America, and he failed to take it.  Again, Obama is missing an opportunity to play a key part in a dialogue that must happen in our country.  I am disappointed by his choice to back-off his support of the Cordoba House, and I hope he chooses to reverse that position soon.  If he truly wants to see Americans’ religious rights protected, he must step in.

Jon’s brilliance

The Daily Show recently did an awesome segment about the opposition to mosque construction in the U.S.  I’ll let the video speak for itself.

Our Sufi allies

This op-ed contribution discusses how as Americans we must work with those within Islam, particularly those in the Sufi tradition, to fight extremism.  One of these Sufis is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim whose initiative is building the Cordoba House. Sufism is a version of Islamic mysticism, not a separate religion.

16th-Century Miniature Painting Depicting Dancing Dervishes, Image by © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

This line of poetry, written by the famous Sufi saint, Rumi, is crucial for us to remember and implement during this time.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

In today’s America, those barriers are fear and misunderstanding.  Only when we recognize them can we begin understanding, befriending, and loving our neighbors.

“Mayor Bloomberg stands up for mosque”

Today, the New York Landmark Preservation Committee voted unanimously to not grant landmark status to a Manhattan building, the site at which an Islamic and interfaith community center is to be built.  If landmark status had been given to the obscure building, the plans to build the Cordoba House would have been put to a halt (because the new center will demolish the older building to erect its new one).  The request to get this older building landmark status was an attempt by the organization Stop the Islamization of America and others to prevent the center from being built.  It was a futile effort because that building, once a Burlington Coat Factory, had no reason to be considered a landmark. Thankfully, the status was not granted and the building of Cordoba House can continue.

Still, there are many who oppose the creation of the Cordoba House, a center which takes its name from the Spanish city where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in peace for hundreds of years.  Despite the fact that the center hopes to foster dialogue, tolerance, and understanding between these groups, many Americans are still fighting it.  Overcome with a fear of Islam perpetuated by cable T.V., organizations like Stop the Islamization of America, and Europe’s recent actions toward Muslims, many people mistakenly believe that this center is a symbol of Muslim conquest.  Some have even claimed that those supporting the center have the same motives as the terrorists who destroyed New York on 9/11.

New York City Mayor Bloomberg today gave a fantastic speech defending the Cordoba House.  He choked up a bit while giving it, and I did while reading.

You should also check out Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s op-ed in the Washington Post’s On Faith section.

Islamic Center near Ground Zero

I recently became aware of building plans for a new Islamic center near Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan.  The project is being headed up by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a prominant Islam leader in New York who authored the book, What ‘s Right with Islam is What’s Right with America.

Not surprisingly, much resistance has met the Cordoba House, an Islamic historical and cultural center and prayer space.  On June 6, Stop the Islamization of America organized a protest against the building of this center.

Here are links to a few videos, articles, and sites related to the project and the backlash against it:

-Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion, “New York Mosque Protest“: A blog post quoting proponents and detractors of the Cordoba House that sets the tone of the situation.

-New York Times, “Muslim Prayers and Renewal New Ground Zero“: A summary article about the project.

-No Mosques at Ground Zero blog: See speeches from the protest

-Youtube video: See a CNN interview with the Stop the Islamization of American director and a Muslim scholar on the day of the protest

-Cordoba Initiative website: Learn about the project and the mission behind it