Why Are We So Threatened by Shariah?

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Why Are We So Threatened by Shariah?

Virginia’s House of Delegates is set to vote soon on HB825, a bill introduced by Del. Bob Marshall that seeks to restrict Virginia courts from using “foreign law” in any court ruling. The bill’s target, of course, is Shariah and has been supported by many of the same characters who helped develop similar legislation in more than 20 other states.

I find the proposed banning of Shariah baffling given the ignorance of the real meaning of Shariah — the principles of conduct and conscience that constitute a moral code for Muslims — and its relationship to Islamic law (which as a religious code cannot be applied or enforced by an American court).

Shariah will continue to be a talking point in the 2012 elections, as some candidates believe that expressing their commitment to oppose Shariah will win votes. Unfortunately, few facts have yet emerged about how the American Muslim population see Shariah and apply it in their lives.

I have published a paper for The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding which is based on four years of research and more than 200 in-depth interviews called “Shari’a Law: Coming to a Courthouse Near You?” The results make the panic generated over “the coming of Shariah law” look ridiculous.

None of the 212 respondents — including many imams, legal scholars, Muslim lawyers and others working in the legal system — suggested that the courts should directly apply Islamic law to Muslims (or, even more nonsensical, to non-Muslims). The very idea makes no sense to Muslims. Shariah is widely regarded as private, family traditions that are quite separate from the courts and the legal system. Further, the vast majority of respondents regarded Shariah and American law as fully compatible.

Public fear about Shariah has brought amateur theologians, lawyers and social scientists out of the woodwork. They are united in their conviction that Shariah is “a bad thing.” Our impressions of Shariah are based on the most extreme examples of fundamentalist Islam.

My study — conducted using in-depth personal interviews, not just tick-the-box surveys or telephone polling — shows that one of the most widely practiced aspects of Shariah among American Muslims is their observation of Muslim marriage and divorce customs. Many, including those who are not formally observant, turn to Shariah to mark life’s most important passages: birth, marriage, divorce and death. In practical terms, this means that the bride and groom will sign a Muslim marriage contract (a nikah) as part of their civil ceremony; and, if they decide to divorce, may ask an imam or religious leader to “approve” their divorce either before or after they obtain a civil decree.

Respondents in my study were emphatic that as Muslims they are required to obey the law of the land. For this reason, almost every respondent married and divorced “twice”: once in Islam, and once in the legal system. The study also shows that American Muslims use the civil courts to resolve conflicts over divorce outcomes. In short, religious marriage and divorce is being used by American Muslims in addition to, not as a substitute for, civil law.

Many Shariah opponents warn that Muslims will try to create a parallel court system. Of 42 imams interviewed for this study, just three proposed the creation of a parallel Islamic family tribunal — the remainder saw no need for this at all. Instead they wish to continue with their private traditions of overseeing marriages and approving (or not) religious divorces.

The accounts of hundreds of Muslims and their understanding of their Islamic obligations in their private lives demonstrate the mundane normality of their family life, and the many similarities Muslim family customs and beliefs about marriage and divorce to those of others.

Just like other Americans, American Muslims want to “get it right” when facing critical life transitions by falling back on traditional practices. This is a way to satisfy their families, their cultural communities and themselves that that they have met their Islamic obligations, both outwardly and inwardly. Within their own cultural and religious traditions, many other Americans adopt similar rituals and customs.

While we can always critique these private systems — especially those that traditionally privilege men over women, as most do — we are not scared of them. So why are we so threatened by Shariah law?

Julie Macfarlane is professor of law at the University of Windsor, professor of the practice at the Kroc institute for International Peace Studies, and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Contact her at jmacfarlane@ispu.org.

This article was published by The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Read it here.

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