Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Shari'a Stalking Horse

Several days ago, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released the following video showing demonstrators outside a charity fundraiser by a Muslim group in Yorba Linda, California:

Because of the recent spate of activist video clip manipulations, I held back to see if anyone protested. All I've seen is a statement by Congressman Ed Royce, stating that he was actually at a nearby park, and said of the protesters in the clip: "I disavow those remarks and conduct. It was wrong." He also specifically defended his involvement with the park rally, which was targeted at two keynote speakers, who seem to be the reason it was singled out all along. The more important was Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who was at one point one of 170 people named in an attorney's memo as a possible unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and who testified as a character witness in the 1995 trial of Omar Abd al-Rahman, who masterminded that bombing. Although right wing sites frequently assert that he was officially named an unindicted co-conspirator, or even "a co-conspirator of 9/11," I can find no supporting evidence of that and several denials that he was so named. He has apparently refused to condemn Osama bin Laden, but also apparently doubts that Bin Laden perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. As an expert witness in a 2001 trial, he testified that Islam prohibited terrorist activities. He seems to be a theologically conservative religious community activist who believes in conspiracy theories against the U.S. government, and that's about it. In explaining his opposition to Wahhaj, Congressman Royce repeats some of what I mention above as right-wing activist tropes, as he probably got his information from conservative activists in his district.

What I want to focus on about this video, however, is what the protestors are shouting. The "Go back home!" chant and terrorism references are obviously reprehensible to anyone likely to be reading his post, as Muslims have been in the United States since independence, and Founding Fathers explicitly mentioned Islam and Judaism among lists of Christian denominations to which they foresaw extending freedom of worship. More significant Muslim immigration began in the 1920's, and chances are almost all the Muslims pictured were natural born American citizens. Part of what's happening today, however, is that the U.S. is becoming more multicultural, and people who are used to living in a Christian bubble are having that bubble popped.

What mainly interests me is the emphasis on shari'a, which is becoming central to grassroots hostility toward Islam in the United States. Shari'a is usually translated as Islamic law, and is probably best thought of as God's all-encompassing path for how people should live their lives in the world, including not only basic faith and morals, but personal status and criminal law. (The word was used in the 7th century to refer to a path which led to a desert watering hole.) In Sunni shari'a, there have for centuries there have been four recognized schools of thought, as well as a long-standing belief that the use of individual reason was no longer permitted and all Muslims should follow versions of shari'a as codified by these four schools around 900 CE. The consensus on this latter point as been steadily breaking down since the 1800's, though medieval views continue to dominate in the Middle East which is what most Americans think of when they think about Islam.

A few days ago, Beenish Ahmed wrote of attempts to ban shari'a at the state level:
"Last week, Tennessee state senator Bill Ketron introduced a law that would prosecute any practice of Shariah law -- defined as a 'legal-political-military doctrine' that promotes spread of 'homegrown terrorism' -- as a felony, punishable with a minimum of 15 years of jail.

"In no unclear terms, the law equates the practice of Shariah -- the oft-debated guidelines of the Muslim faith -- with treason. '[K]nowing adherence to Shariah and to foreign Shariah authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government -- with the aim of imposing Shariah on the people of this state.,' it reads...

"Like the Vatican's Code of Cannon Law for Catholics, Shariah, derived from the revelations of the Quran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad and interpreted by various scholars of Islam , offers a nebulous outline on how to practice Islam and adjudicates on matters of faith. Given that it many of the guidelines are highly specific instructions on religious rituals -- for instance, on whether feet must be washed in each pre-prayer ablution -- it is hard to imagine why legislators are so concerned with it.

"On a purely factual level, Shariah law has in fact been used and recognized in U.S. courts. If enforced, a major effect of the laws which include language banning not only the use of Shariah but foreign laws as well, could be that Shariah-compliant marriage contracts and international business contracts are rendered void."

Ahmed does not mention the conservative, highly codified idea of shari'a, but does report on the idea of shari'a as it is lived and advocated in the United States. As she correctly points out, the Tennessee bill bans the practice of Islam, if not belief, and as such is sure to be struck down under the U.S. Constitution's "free exercise" clause. These efforts, however, serve to keep a hostile vision of Islam front and center in the public mind. Part of this may relate to the insecurity felt by many conservative Christians at the bursting of their religiously monolithic bubbles mentioned above, which is also seen in their declining ability to use state power to promote their religion. It is also linked to support for American military ventures in the Middle East, conservative support for Israel, and perhaps in some cases holds shadowy hands with the idea that President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim.

Hostility to Islam became unmistakable over the summer, when Rick Lazio made the previously unremarked Park51 community center in lower Manhattan a campaign issue. Those fires were also duplicitously stoked by FOXNews, the leading conservative news outlet, as seen clearly in this memorable Jon Stewart segment. Last month, FOXnews also interviewed Anjem Choudary, a British Muslim cleric who advocates shari'a, presumably the conservative, codified version, in the Unites States. He's British, however, has little American support, and wound up not showing up for the pro-shari'a protest he tried in vain to get together. I can think of no reason to give him a platform save to stoke fear and try to portray a phantom menace as real. And then, what actually happened, was that protestors motivated by Choudary's publicity in the American media, simply harassed a nearby Muslim performing his daily prayers.

Certain politicians and media outlets are using shari'a to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States for use in political grand-standing, as a wedge issue, and perhaps for ratings. As with Congressman Royce, most who partake of this discourse do not harass individual Muslims, or even condone such behavior. A portion of them do, however, and since the entire line of concern is fantasy, those who are stirring the pot bear a moral burden for the social climate they create. And that this is a social climate problem for American Muslims can be seen in the way the spreading of the shari'a meme even co-opts other people and institutions into its service.

The best example of this is Catholic Bishop of Springfield Thomas John Paprocki, who in his Christmas Eve homily said, "If we are lukewarm about our Christianity, the Islamists won't need to invade with armies like they marched into Vienna in 1683, but they could simply continue to move in peacefully and legally as they are already doing in Western Europe and even here in the United States until they reach a majority and impose Islamist values and sharia law with little or no resistance." Paprocki later said in response to the uproar that: "The context of my homily was the fact that Christian churches in Iraq had cancelled their Midnight Mass and other Christmas celebrations due to the threats of al-Quaida on their tiny Christian community that was still terrified from a bloody siege on a Baghdad church this past Oct. 31...My Midnight Mass homily was a call 'to live our Catholic faith and practice our Christian beliefs much more fervently.'" I happen to believe him. Junaid Afeed called his comments, "misguided opinions of a priest dabbling in matters far beyond his expertise." The man can't even spell al-Qa'ida correctly. The quote just mentioned, for example, references "Islamist" immigration, not "Muslim" immigration in general, and I believe that this would have been written differently by a man who hated all Muslims. On the issue of Christians in Iraq, Juan Cole among others has called attention to their plight.

Consider, however, the way in which this was done, which as Afeef pointed out was "dangerous an inflammatory." One thread is Paprocki's historical sense of a clash of religious civilizations, which probably resonates because of the survival over the centuries of a centralized and authoritative top hierarchy within the Roman Catholic Church. This is clearly not the case in Islam, however, and I can think of little Osama bin Laden has in common with the Ottoman Empire aside from Islam and the fact they both fought people. The other thread, however, is conservative orthodoxy. Bishop Paprocki's comments about Iraq read like a vintage 2004 Republican campaign assessment. He also called for racial profiling, and then there's the central bit about the non-existent creeping shari'a. In this case, I suspect that many within the Catholic hierarchy, based mainly on common views of abortion and gay rights, have come to identify strongly with American movement conservatism, despite the latter's roots in American nationalism and conservative evangelical Protestantism. As part of this, they rely mainly on conservative media outlets, and so fall victim to the epistemic closure of the American right, which proves critical in shaping opinions on all issues where there is not a strong countervailing trend, such as that found in Catholicism on immigration, Orthodoxy on the environment, and so forth. In any case, however, Paprocki's homily functionally cast a pall of suspicion over Muslim immigrants, and especially since most people still see Muslims as Others within the United States, all American Muslims, even if at this point nothing has happened in Springfield as has happened elsewhere.

This is the path of a dangerous falsehood. Produced by those with an agenda, it is passed to those who are either naive, ignorant, frightened, or culturally anxious, picked up by new potential channels of authority from those who might not listen to the original sources. And from there, even if most do no more than grandstand or propose meaningless laws, some act to harass and intimidate, and that is felt by Muslims throughout the country.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Anonymous Tim said...

Good post, Brian. I just gave a talk at a community event. One guy did say "Why won't anyone recognize that sharia is the biggest threat to this country". He apparently wasn't enthusiastic about my answer that the constitution provides the basis for law in this country...nor did he like it when I asked him which interpretation of sharia he was concerned with. Indeed, he was rather flabbergasted that it wasn't nice cut and dry.

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

" In Sunni shari'a, there have for centuries there have been four recognized schools of thought, as well as a long-standing belief that the use of individual reason was no longer permitted and all Muslims should follow versions of shari'a as codified by these four schools around 900 CE. The consensus on this latter point as been steadily breaking down since the 1800's, though medieval views continue to dominate in the Middle East which is what most Americans think of when they think about Islam."

It is important to distinguish between fiqh and shariah in this respect, and indeed to note that a form of legal pluralism existed early on before the state (especially in Ottoman times) was able to fully incorporate religious institutions. This means that the more extreme elements' call for a return to a pristine form of shariah and Islam is actually a quite modern phenomenon, and smacks of an invented tradition of purity.

I would also like to ask what you mean when you say medieval views dominate in the Middle East? You mean state-sponsored Wahhabism? The fact the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and Amr Khaled are so popular suggests to me otherwise.

With thanks!

2:39 AM  
Blogger Brian Ulrich said...

Fiqh/shari'a: Good point, though I feared a distraction from what I was trying to say

My understanding is that most people in the Middle East still pick a madhdhab and run with it, which if you believe the gates of ijtihad are closed, means you are adopting medieval interpretations. Pew surveys have shown consistent support for highly conservative social views.

12:58 PM  

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