In a strange kind of delayed response, the American public seems to be in a more Islamaphobic mood now than it was right after 9/11, when a few Muslim terrorists transformed planes into bombs. Symptoms are everywhere, from widespread opposition to the building of mosques and other Islamic institutions, to congressional hearings amplifying fearful, anti-Islamic voices, to Muslim-oriented surveillance policies, to the use of agent provocateurs to entrap hapless malcontents.
The list goes on, but one of the most unlikely avenues of attack is jurisprudence.
Last November, for example, more than 70 percent of the Oklahoma electorate voted for a constitutional amendment that explicitly prohibited state courts from considering Sharia law. Sharia is an Arabic word that translates roughly into “way” or “path,” and is the title given to the sacred law of Islam. The idea that Sharia must be banned lest it threaten a state’s system of jurisprudence should be too absurd to be taken seriously.
Nevertheless, a majority of Oklahoma’s voters took it seriously enough to want the ban affixed to the state constitution. Luckily, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the amendment in November.
Oklahoma lawmakers may have overreached by seeking constitutional changes, but more than a dozen other states are considering similar kinds of anti-Islamic legislation. In February, legislators in Tennessee put forward a bill that would simply outlaw Sharia and make “material support” for it punishable by 15 years in prison. Critics argued that even benign activities like weddings at a mosque or bringing food to a potluck could be classified as a felony. In March, legislators amended the proposed bill to remove all references to Islam, Muslims or Sharia.
In its broadest sense, Sharia is a system of laws based on the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad – the Sunnah and Hadith. It is not codified and is practiced according to how Muslim scholars interpret the law.
However, it has been characterized much more insidiously by members of the Tennessee legislature. Among other things, the drafting legislators wrote, “Sharia … includes a war doctrine known as jihad,” and “the unchanging and ultimate aim of jihad is the imposition of Sharia on all states and nations, including the United States and this state … through violence and criminal activity.” Essentially, the legislation described Sharia law as a terrorist manifesto.
Other states, including Missouri, Arkansas, Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming, are considering similar bills. Many of these states use the arguments of the Tennessee bill to make their case, and much of that language derives largely from David Yerushalmi, founder of the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE).
In a March 1 article on MotherJones.com headlined “Meet the White Supremacist Leading the GOP’s Anti-Sharia Crusade,” writer Tim Murphy describes Yerushalmi as “an Arizona-based white supremacist who has previously called for a ‘war against Islam’ and tried to criminalize adherence to the Muslim faith.”
Yerushalmi is also the general counsel for Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, one of the primary neo-conservative groups pushing the notion that Sharia law is being used by radical Islamist groups as the first step in the conquest of the West. The center released a report titled “Shariah: The Threat to America” that claimed “most of the Muslim-American groups of any prominence in America are now known to be…hostile to the United States and its constitution.”
Usually those pushing such narratives can be dismissed for having a vested interest in hyperbole. But anti-Islamic screeds have become mainstream fare. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) frequently says that Islamic values are the “antithesis of the principles on which this country was established.” Newt Gingrich, who just announced plans to explore a run for the White House, recently told the Values Voters Summit that he favors a federal ban on Sharia law.
For all their bellicosity, this baying chorus of reactionaries seem especially frightened of things Islamic.
Unfortunately, it’s contagious. When fear rules the roost, the right wing prospers.