News / USA

Analysts: Efforts to Ban Sharia in US States Reflect Continued Anxiety Over Islam

The Islamic Center of America mosque in Dearborn, Michigan (file photo)
The Islamic Center of America mosque in Dearborn, Michigan (file photo)

Lawmakers in more than a dozen U.S. states have been trying to ban the Islamic religious and civil code known as Sharia, arguing that it inspires home-grown terrorism. Analysts say those efforts reflect continued anxiety and misunderstanding about Muslims in America.

Last year, 70 percent of voters in Oklahoma approved a referendum to prevent Sharia from being used in state courts.

When a judge blocked certification of the result because of constitutional concerns, Oklahoma State Representative Sally Kern says many people were upset.

"Not only I, but the vast majority of Oklahomans, there's been a huge outcry here," said Kern.

With the referendum - known as State Question 755 - now on hold, Kern has put forward a bill in her state legislature that would ban "any law, rule, legal code or system" that does not offer the same protections as the U.S. constitution.

She says the target is still Sharia.

"What my bill does is it reinforces and puts in statute the intent of State Question 755," she said.

Several weeks ago, a lawmaker in Tennessee removed specific references to Sharia in a similar bill there.

Sharia governs every aspect of a devout Muslim's life. And some U.S. courts have allowed Muslims to resolve divorces and other disputes in Sharia tribunals established by their local mosques. This is also done for other faiths as well, and legal experts say the secular court’s job is to ensure that all state laws are observed.

Still, proponents of the anti-Sharia bills insist U.S. laws are under threat. Many point to a recent case in New Jersey. There, a judge ruled that a Muslim man who forced his wife to have sex with him could not be accused of rape because the man believed it was permitted under Islam. An appellate court later overturned the ruling.

David Yerushalmi, a Washington-based lawyer who helped craft the anti-Sharia bills, says Sharia is a threat to America because it includes the notion of jihad as a holy war in the name of Islam.

"We know that all of the jihadists, every single one of them, base their doctrine of jihad on Sharia law," said Yerushalmi.

While a key aim of Islamist groups - especially in majority Muslim countries - is to impose Sharia as the law of the land,  many Muslims disagree with that aim.

Yerushalmi says he just wants to help law enforcement authorities fight terrorism, not prohibit the peaceful observance of Islam.

But Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, says the real aim of those sponsoring the bills is to win votes in the 2012 elections by demonizing Islam.

"The sponsors of these bills are relying on fear mongering to try and score some cheap political points and to attack a religious minority that is already under siege by a cottage industry of Muslim-bashers," said Hooper.

CAIR says a congressional hearing held in March on "Radicalization in the American Muslim Community" was also part of that effort.

Hooper says Muslims in America just want to live their lives in peace.

Peter Skerry, a political science professor at Boston College, says anxiety over their intentions is often rooted in a misunderstanding of the way Muslims practice their faith.

"But I also think there's a lot of anxiety, because there are a lot of unanswered or unacknowledged questions about Muslims, and especially their leadership in their leading organizations," said Skerry.

Skerry, who is researching the integration of Muslims and Arabs in the United States, says major Muslim organizations in America - including CAIR - have not been forthcoming enough about alleged ties to radical groups abroad.

CAIR says such allegations are part of a smear campaign.

Skerry says he does not mean that leaders of these groups are extremists.

"But I would argue that that state of affairs is a problem because, the more this gets ignored, the more this fuels the kinds of activity like you see in these states across the U.S. where there's efforts to ban Sharia law, as if this were imminent," he said.

He says those who believe Sharia can be imposed in America underestimate the strength of this country’s democracy.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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