Shariah law sparks lively debate

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A panel exploring whether Islamic law — Shariah — could ever become part of the U.S. legal system produced some emotional fireworks last night at the First Amendment Center.

Lawmakers in at least 13 states, including Tennessee,  have filed bills that would bar judges from considering Shariah law in legal decisions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Advocates for such measures warn against any application of Islam’s religious tenets in the U.S. Opponents say such laws are not needed, and that the proposals simply reflect an out-of-control “Islamophobia” aimed at restricting the presence and religious beliefs of Muslims.

Panel members — and the audience — reflected both views, heatedly at times.

Bill French, who writes under the name Bill Warner, said history had shown encroachments by Islamic law in non-Muslim societies. French founded and directs the Center for the Study of Political Islam in Nashville.

Islam is “far more of a political system, based on its texts, than it is a religion,” French said. He added that much of Islamic doctrine is directed at how non-Muslims should behave or be treated.

According to the 1,400-year-old Islamic texts he studies, French said, Islam seeks “to intrude into the public space” far more than other religions. He cited legal changes in Europe to accommodate Islamic beliefs and practices amid heavy Muslim immigration.

French said there were roughly as many Buddhists as Muslims in the United States, and yet there has been no pressure from Buddhists to change or ask for exceptions in American law.

But Umbreen Bhatti, a lawyer and a Muslim, countered that comparisons between what’s happening in Europe and what could happen here aren’t useful because the legal systems and immigration situation are different. Bhatti  co-founded Islawmix, a project at the Berkman Center at Harvard University that seeks to provide information and expert sources for journalists covering Islam.

“Thirty-five to forty percent of U.S. Muslims are African-American and not immigrants, including myself,” she said. “It’s a different situation in Europe.”

“You said you were interested in what happened 1,400 years ago,” Bhatti said to French. “I’m not.” Shariah, she said, is an ideal for behavior, a word that means “what God wants.” What happened in the early history of Islam, and how some Muslims have interpreted some texts since then, doesn’t necessarily have much to do with reality today, she said.

Bhatti’s project tries to counter “misinformation,” she said, about Muslims and Islam. When news emerged that Muslim leaders in New York wanted to build a mosque and education center near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, information that the “ground-zero mosque” was a “victory mosque” proclaiming a Muslim defeat of the West “went viral,” she said. The notion reached many places, including Murfreesboro, Tenn., where some residents tried to stop the building of a mosque.

“Shariah is not actually going to take over this country,” Bhatti said. “There’s no real threat.” She added, however, that Muslims “have not always done the best job of answering questions” about their faith.

And Saleh Sbenaty, a Muslim who is a professor of computer-engineering technology at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, said French’s understanding of Islam was flat wrong.

“I never knew about Shariah or Islam the way Bill presents it,” Sbenaty said. “If the (world’s) 1.6 billion Muslims hear (French’s version), they will convert. They will say, ‘This is a bad religion.’”

Nobody in Islam is pushing to have Shariah replace the Constitution, Sbenaty said. “We live like everybody else.” As for the Murfreesboro mosque construction controversy, he said, “We did not ask for anything to change the law,” but rather just wanted a larger building.

Against French’s assertion that Islam intrudes into the political sphere, Sbenaty said few Muslims have sought political office; they engage in humanitarian work in society but “don’t announce it” because “it’s our duty as human beings.”

Moderator Gene Policinski, senior vice president/executive director of the First Amendment Center, noted a pattern in American history wherein minority religious faiths — Catholic, Mormon, Muslim — were at first distrusted, feared or hated, until greater understanding brought greater acceptance.

Policinski also pointed out that the First Amendment prohibits any state establishment of religion, such as Shariah or other other religious law.

During an often-emotional question-and-answer period, a man who identified himself as “Eddie from here” challenged Sbenaty on the question of Muslim apostasy. Some Muslim scholars have said converting from Islam to another religion is punishable by death. Sbenaty replied that a relative of his in Cookeville, Tenn., had converted to Christianity and had not been killed.

“That was in Cookeville,” Eddie said.

A question was asked about legal cases in New Jersey, California and elsewhere in which Shariah was considered in the courtroom and, in the New Jersey case, applied. In that case, a judge denied a restraining order to a woman who alleged that her husband had raped her.

“The judge got it wrong,” Bhatti said, noting that an appeals court overturned the ruling. “The Constitution is our governing document.”

Disagreeing with a point French had made, Bhatti said, “In majority Muslim countries, Shariah law is not even applied to (religious) minorities” and that it should not apply in the United States.

Concerning wife-beating and other mistreatment of women discussed in Islamic texts, Sbenaty said different Muslims interpret different passages differently, and that some strictures, far from being universal, may have been applied in only one instance.

French said some Muslims seemed to be saying that extreme dictates in holy texts should simply be dismissed and ignored.

The discussion was presented in cooperation with the School of Journalism at Middle Tennessee State University, which is hosting a conference for journalists on “Covering Islam in the Bible Belt” at the First Amendment Center. The three-day conference, featuring veteran reporters and experts in Islamic history and culture, is intended to give journalists resources to help them report on issues involving Muslim communities. The McCormick Foundation is funding the conference.

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