Attacking Shariah, Attacking Religious Freedom

Attacking Shariah, Attacking Religious Freedom

Attacking Shariah, Attacking Religious Freedom

In the United States, anti-Islamic fear-mongering has paved the way for efforts to criminalize the religion itself.


This is the season of Ramadan, one of the holiest times of the year for practicing Muslims. For one month, we fast from dawn until dusk, increase our charity work and deepen our faith through the Quran. This year, as Ramadan comes to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the many ways this faith is being misrepresented.

Muslim Americans are in the midst of a profound crisis. Our faith is under assault. Radical groups abroad are using Islam as a justification for wanton violence, which is strictly forbidden in the Muslim faith. And at home in the United States, Islam is being criminalized, turned into an object of suspicion and threat. In New York City, the police department has made a practice of spying on Muslims in their restaurants, book stores and places of worship. Conspiracy theorists continue to “accuse” President Obama of being Muslim, as if this were a bad thing, capable of disqualifying him from leading the nation. And throughout the country, a movement to ban US courts from considering Shariah in their legal decisions has been sweeping the legislatures in one state after another.

This anti-Shariah movement is one of the most profound, and dangerous, expressions of the effort to criminalize Islam. Though it is often paired with the word “law,” Shariah is, in fact, a set of observances that guide all aspects of a Muslim’s day-to-day life such as moral codes of conduct, diet and the drafting of our wills. During Ramadan, it is Shariah that guides our prayer and daily activities. It is impossible to find a practicing Muslim who does not follow Shariah.

Sadly, Shariah has been reduced to an inflammatory term in this country. Preying on American’s unfamiliarity with the Muslim faith, politicians and racists alike have begun using the “threat” of Shariah to drum up fear and suspicion of Muslims. And the attacks are getting worse. Since 2010, when Oklahoma passed the nation’s first ban on “Shariah law,” the anti-Shariah movement has grown significantly. At this point, five states have passed laws outlawing Shariah or “foreign law,” including Arizona, Louisiana and Tennessee, and some two dozen states have considered such legislation or are still considering it.

Critics of Shariah cite a roster of reasons for banning it from our courts, but all come down to a misreading and misunderstanding of Islam. Perhaps the most pernicious of these fallacies is the idea that Shariah is a threat to American democracy, a way for American Muslims to impose a miliant perversion of Shariah on US courts and ultimately the country. This is a preposterous claim. The truth is that militant Islam is not an accurate reflection of the religion, and a radical form of Shariah will never be instated in the US, both because Muslim Americans are not calling for it and because our legal system prevents it from happening.

Since the time of the pilgrims, cultures from across the globe have come to the United States in search of freedom of religion. We are privileged and honored to be protected by the US Constitution, which allows us to practice our faith freely. The idea that Muslim Americans are trying to instate “Shariah Law” across the nation was contrived by hate groups. In fact, Shariah itself mandates living by the law of the land. The Constitution of the United States protects our civil liberties, and supersedes all other forms of law. It is the ultimate legal code for all Americans, including Muslims. As Muslim Americans, we only ask for the freedom to live our lives in accordance with our faith.

What many people don’t realize is that outlawing Shariah is akin to outlawing the Ten Commandments, Talmudic law or the gospels of Jesus Christ. Shariah is a moral imperative for all Muslims and defining it as a threat is equivalent to deeming all observant Muslims a danger to society. To ban Shariah is to ban the Muslim religion and harshly strip several million taxpaying Americans of their first amendment rights.

And yet, anti-Shariah bills continue to gain traction, and as they spread, so does prejudice against Muslim Americans. In 2011, the number of anti-Muslim hate groups tripled, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Hate crimes, like last week’s mosque burning in Joplin, Missouri, have also been rising. Meanwhile, Muslims have become ever more fearful. Some fear for their safety while many worry that they will be restricted from fasting at their workplaces or wearing hijabs in public schools.

In the wake of the tragedy at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, as well as the Joplin mosque burning, it is time for members of traditionally insular faiths such as Sikhism and Islam to make our voices heard. Many of us are beginning to try. At the Islamic Circle of North America, we have launched “Defending Religious Freedom, Understanding Shariah,” a national campaign to educate Americans about Shariah and combat Islamophobia. But we cannot do this alone. As we work to stanch the movement to ban Shariah, we urge the public to join us in protecting our civil liberties and the unalienable right of all Americans to religious freedom. 

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