Haroon Moghul Executive Director, The Maydan Institute: “Last week, Oklahomans voted overwhelmingly in favor of State Question 755, which forbids state courts from considering “international law,” defined as a discourse “formed by the general assent of civilized nations,” and “Sharia,” or “Islamic law,” in their decisions. Perhaps Oklahomans, in their eagerness to rid their state of alleged foreign influences, did not realize that the amendment could forbid their courts from citing the Ten Commandments, which were after all passed to us through a Middle Eastern people.
But what of Sharia? Literally, it means “the path to the water,” and refers to God’s revelation in the form of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, and the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. However, I should immediately note that Sharia is, after Muhammad, an inconclusive discourse: Muslims recognize no Prophet after Muhammad, no Pope and no Church. No final and conclusive arbiter of disputes exists. Further, when people say “Sharia,” they are usually referring to specific interpretations of Sharia: What the Taliban enforced in Afghanistan was not Sharia per se, which is not a fixed and static body of law, but rather the Taliban’s interpretation of the Sharia. State Question 755 reflects this conflation.
Islamic law is an ongoing and contentious conversation over the interpretation and application of key texts. Given that, and keeping in mind that Muslims have historically quite often produced interpretations of Sharia consistent with their circumstances and realities, it is no surprise that American Muslims overwhelmingly understand Islam as a voluntary ethical and social practice. American Muslims – who, as I am disappointed to be forced to clarify, are Americans – want the state to protect our right to worship, and want – and expect – the state to protect others’ rights to worship, or not worship, as their conscience leads them.
Is a statistically significant number of American Muslims actually agitating for the introduction of Sharia law? Of course not. But State Question 755 was not the product of reasonable concern, but rather the predictable result of a larger environment that fears anything Islamic; it is the same flawed logic that leads to the assumption that our President is a Muslim. So, what is the point of having Sharia law? This was a “preemptive strike“: one day American Muslims will try to take over our country. No matter what we do, say, insist upon or work towards, our motives and our very presence in the nation is suspect enough to compel the amendment of a state constitution.
Such sentiments make it that much harder for American Muslims to confidently pursue interpretations of Sharia relevant to our existence, celebratory of democracy and supportive of positive civil society. What are the larger ramifications of these sentiments which not only reject Islam, but which also reject anything deemed non-American and ipso facto un-American? Even international law, as we have seen, is a threat; Islam is easily and ignorantly conflated with something from outside our borders (not to mention the assumption that there is no wisdom to be gained from looking beyond America).
This “preemptive strike” against Sharia advances another agenda, which actually wants – and has the means – to introduce religious law into the American public sphere. Nobody flinched when Newt Gingrich rejected a mosque in lower Manhattan until and unless a church was built in Mecca. Nobody pointed out that American Muslims are not Saudis; we are Americans, with no more power over Saudi domestic policy than any other private American citizen. Nobody noted the elision of America and Christianity, for Gingrich defined and demanded reciprocity – dealing with American Muslims as if we are the representatives of a foreign regime – through the establishment not of any civic institution that reflects America, but rather a house of worship.
Is America a Christian nation? Is America exempt from international law? What is our responsibility to the world? How is the idea of democracy, and of the separation of powers, received by the world in the face of our increasing sectarian politics? And how do these fears, anxieties, and prejudices reverberate through our politics, beginning at anti-mosque protests across America, and ending, one fears, with the power to influence our government for years to come? For the interpretation of our Constitution is, of course, determined by elected officials and the sentiments they pander to, reflect, and irresponsibly amplify.”
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.