Sharia Law: The Truths Behind The Myths

While governments in the Middle East are imperiled with demands for freedom and equality, America’s state legislatures are contemplating bills that expose their fear and intolerance of Islam.

Sharia, or Islamic law, is hyped as the biggest threat to freedom since Communism, purportedly threatening our freedom of speech, women’s rights, and Christian values – basically, everything “inviolable” in American politics (read a rant here).

Peter King is not the only one making waves. Oklahomans already voted to ban Sharia from being used as evidence in court in November 2010. State legislatures in Alabama, Missouri, and Tennessee are considering similar bills, though the Oklahoma law is currently on hold because of constitutionality questions.

Before it sounds like only a Midwestern issue, there was a massive anti-sharia rally in California on Feb. 13 at a fundraiser for the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA to support Muslim families. These rallies were in Orange County, which aside from being the home of Disneyland, is a Republican stronghold.

Much has already been said about the violent rhetoric that dominates contemporary American politics, but this was abysmal. Signs that said “Muhammad was a pervert” and “Muhammad was a child molester” were on display, and protesters yelled “Why don’t you go beat up your wife like you do every night? Maybe you ought to go have sex with a nine-year-old, and marry her!” A local congresswoman claimed that her son, a Marine, would have liked to send the Muslims “to paradise early.”

It looks like ignorance is trumping the truth these days.

People who really understand the issue are aware that the concept of Sharia is far from being either autocratic or anti-democratic. It relies on four simple concepts. It is based on four sources: the Qur’an, the sunna (stories of the life of Muhammad and his companions), ‘ijma (consensus), and ijtihad (individual reasoning). The Qur’an and the sunna provide definite textual evidence for the law, while the ‘ijma, or a majority of Muslims, need to enact a change before it is law.

The last is the most problematic: ijtihad relies on private reasoning to interpret the law. There are very loose standards to interpret law, which has caused confusion over differing interpretations of Islam. The flexibility afforded by ‘ijma and ijtihad has allowed Sharia to remain relevant nearly thirteen centuries after its first textual sources were written. Sharia includes civil and criminal law, but also governs personal conduct. Many complain about the Qur’an because it articulates inhumane punishments (complaints here), but keep in mind that this was written in the 7th century – human rights as we know them today didn’t exist at that point.

Women’s rights are more problematic. Islam has gotten a particularly bad rap for the women’s rights abuses it apparently causes. Several women, most notably Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author of Infidel and screenwriter of Theo van Gogh’s Submission (an anti-Islam film he was murdered for making), have made comments about Islam being highly negative for the future of womens’ rights.

Ali predicts doom and gloom for Western societies that don’t force assimilation:

“You think it can’t happen? The problem with liberals is that we believe other people are as reasonable and tolerant as we are. How naive is the self-deception of the West to continue to talk of moderate Islam? We’re trying to appease Islam, but we are headed for a terrible confrontation between fascist Islam and right-wing fascists who will step in when liberals fail to do so. Why do Britons think that what happened in the Baltics,with fascist right-wingers murdering Muslims, can’t happen here? It can, and it will, unless we stop burying our heads in the sand.”

Ali does bring up a good point. Current Islamic governments have not done enough (anything, in some cases) to protect women, and it’s a travesty that should amount to hundreds, if not thousands, of human rights violations. The issue of women’s rights in the Middle East cannot be ignored (read Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns for a well-written novel about the plight of women in the Arab world), and has become a linchpin in the debate about Sharia.

But these violations of women’s rights are caused by radical readings of the Qur’an by clerics, rather than from the religion itself. The current status of women’s rights in Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, are due to a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an, similar to the current debate about whether we should read the Constitution literally or interpret it according to contemporary situations. Those who believe in literal interpretations of the Constitution want to derive its meaning from the 18th century; Islamic fundamentalists aim to return to the 7th century, when Islam emerged and began its “Golden Age.”

Banning Sharia in courts of law has serious repercussions for American Muslims. It codifies the inferiority of a religion and a culture, reducing Muslims to second-class citizens who are unable to write their own wills or marry in their own institutions.

These protests stoke fear: they encourage xenophobia through the belief that “real Americans” will no longer rule the country. That fear garners votes, which grants those with bigoted agendas a larger bully pulpit. If you feel like you have to protest against Sharia, I won’t stop you, but I hope that you read up on sources from places other than Glenn Beck/Fox News before you do.

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