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Michael Waldron: Sharia law suitable for the United States?

Published 11:47pm Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The title of Eliyahu Stern’s 2 Sep 2011 column in New York Times, “Don’t Fear Islamic Law in America,” caught my eye so I swallowed hard and read a New York Times opinion piece.   I’ve lived twice in Pakistan so most things Islamic interest me — that’s my excuse for reading the New York Times.  I soon learned that Professor Stern equated 19th and 20th century anti-Jewish prejudice toward Jewish law with present concerns about Islamic Sharia law.  He references Napoleon’s concerns about the loyalty of Jews and German philosophers’ attempts to harmonize Jewish culture with the predominant Christian community.  Apparently, one of those Germans, Bruno Bauer, was concerned that Jews wouldn’t work on Saturday.  Really!
Professor Stern, an assistant professor of religious studies and history at Yale, states in his column:  “The crusade against Shariah undermines American democracy, ignores our country’s successful history of religious tolerance and assimilation, and creates a dangerous divide between America and its fastest-growing religious minority.”  This is not just some academic exercise because there are a large number of Muslims in southeastern Michigan and there already have been some calls for allowing Sharia law in Michigan.
Professor Stern’s academic credentials, notwithstanding, I cannot see any connection between anti-Jewish law sentiment and anti-Sharia law sentiment.  Professor Stern theorizes that allowing Sharia law will promote a moderate form of Islam and increase the assimilation of Muslims.  There are three major problems with that theory.
First, the British have experimented with allowing Sharia law in Britain for some time.  If both parties in a civil suit agree, the British legal system allows Sharia law to decide the case.  There is no evidence that this has promoted assimilation of Muslims in Britain.  If recent civil unrest is any indication, it has not.
Second, Americans traditionally tolerate all religions, except where religions violate the rights of its members.  For instance, the United States refused to admit Utah into the Union until Mormons renounced polygamy.  Sharia law varies from country to country and from Sunni to Shia Islamic sects.   Some aspects of Sharia Law would conflict dramatically with American law.  For instance:
n Men may marry up to four women, although polygamy is rare.
n A man can unilaterally divorce his wife by stating three times “I divorce…” in front of witnesses.
n Testimony of two women equals the testimony of one man.
n Homosexuality is forbidden.
n The penalty for adultery is stoning.
n The penalty for thievery is the amputation of one hand.
n Apostasy is punishable by death.
n In some countries, blasphemy is punishable by death.
Third, is there any historical example where the United States recognized such a radical departure from our legal traditions, particularly equal protection under the law?  Professor Stern provides no example.
I am no expert on Islam, and I must reiterate that Sharia Law is not the same everywhere; nevertheless, some of the aspects of Sharia law listed above are in effect in most Muslim countries.  Especially regarding the status of women, there doesn’t appear to be any common ground between Sharia law and the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal treatment of men and women.
Would we really allow an Islamic community in America to stone to death an adulteress or execute a Muslim who converted to another faith?  In other aspects of Islamic life, Americans make no restrictions where there is no conflict with American law.  For instance, no one cares whether Muslims eat pork or drink alcohol or on which day Muslims pray together communally.
I should add that some aspects of Sharia law are good.  Zakat or alms tax for the poor is one of them.  Furthermore, there are protections for women and children in Sharia law.  This column concentrates on those aspects of Sharia law that conflict with our constitution.
The last paragraph begs the question, “Why not allow parts of Sharia law that do not conflict with our Constitution if the parties involved want Sharia law to decide their case?”  That’s what the British did.  As I remarked, allowing Sharia law did not bring the Islamic community closer to the Anglo community.  In fact, I think it emphasized the differences or at least perpetuated them.
There is another aspect of Islam that is troubling to non-Muslims.  From the very beginning of the history of Islam, there has been the belief that the world is divided into Dar al Islam (House of Islam) where Islam is dominant and Dar al Harb (House of War) where Islam is not dominant.  The obvious implication is that there will be war in all areas not dominated by Islam.  Modern day jihadists are most adamant about converting the entire world to Dar al Islam by whatever means available.
Immigration is usually a voluntary act.  Rather than placing the onus on the United States to make Muslims feel comfortable by allowing them to use Sharia law, Muslim immigrants must accept the U.S. Constitution, which grants freedom to all—even wives and daughters.  America is a unique country in the world.  An immigrant becomes a full-fledged citizen immediately when that person accepts the democratic ideals of our Constitution.  We do not stigmatize immigrants because of their race, religion, or language.  We only ask that they accept the democratic traditions of our constitution.  That should extend to Muslim immigrants like it has to every other immigrant group.

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