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Sharia Creates Controversy in US

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In recent months, much attention has been focused on the place of Islam in America.  That was partly the result of two controversies - one over plans for an Islamic center in Manhattan, near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York; the other over a Florida pastor's aborted plan to burn the Quran.  A new controversy concerns Islamic law, or Sharia.

At a recent press conference in the U.S. Capitol, a public policy group that focuses on security issues presented its latest publication.

"And we have produced a document, which we call, 'Sharia, the Threat to America!'", said Frank Gaffney.

Frank Gaffney is President of the Center for Security Policy and was an assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration.

He says U.S. policy makers have reason to be concerned about Sharia.

"It is antithetical to all of the freedoms that we [in the United States] hold dear in terms of how it treats most especially women, homosexuals, people who decide to leave the faith," he said.

Sharia is a centuries-old body of law based on the Quran and other Islamic religious texts.  It governs many aspects of a Muslim's daily life, such as marriage and inheritance.  But it is also used in some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia as a basis for punishments, including amputations and stoning women accused of adultery.

In the United States, an increasing number of people say Sharia is a danger to American democracy.  Anti-Sharia slogans have appeared at protests against the Islamic center planned near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

A former speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, took up the issue in a recent speech.

"We should have a federal law that says, 'Under no circumstance in any jurisdiction in the United States, will Sharia be used by any court to apply to any judgment made about American law," said Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich said he is not against Islam, but rather against extremists within the faith.

But American Muslim leaders say the critics of Sharia are distorting a complex religious tradition and using it to demonize Islam.

Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison is a Muslim serving in the House of Representatives.  He says he was outraged by Gingrich's speech.  

"He knows what he is saying is wrong," said Ellison. "He knows it is unconstitutional.  But he thinks he can squeak out a political advantage by doing this."

Ellison says the draconian punishments associated with Sharia should be compared to aberrations in the history of British and American law, such as the witchcraft trials in colonial Massachusetts.

He says Gingrich's argument has no basis in fact.

"And where is Sharia being imposed in America?  Give me an example of what he is even talking about," he said. "I have no idea what he is talking about."

According to American legal experts, there is no known case of a U.S. court referencing Sharia in jurisprudence.  And they say the likelihood of it being adopted in the United States is as great as that of any other foreign body of law taking over the nation's legal system - in other words, non-existent.   


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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