In this age of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion movements, twenty years after the tragedy of 9/11, why is it still acceptable to denigrate Muslims and what they believe without any knowledge of what they believe? Why are Muslims judged on the basis of stereotypes and not on facts? And why are we as Americans so reflexively quick to believe the worst of Muslims, given half an opportunity to do so?
Shariah, in particular, is a scare word in the West. Lately, most people, including journalists, take for granted that what the Taliban (or ISIS) say is shariah really is shariah. That’s exactly like going to the Ku Klux Klan to get a definition of Christianity. In fact, the Taliban are to Islam what the KKK are to Christianity: both groups commit acts of murder and brutality and justify them on the basis of religion. The only reason the Taliban and ISIS have been more successful than the KKK is that they operate in failed states.
But the shariah scare began long before the Taliban or ISIS. In 2010, David Yerushalmi, a right-wing lawyer, set out to introduce the idea of a draconian, oppressive shariah ready to take over the US. To this end, he approached state legislatures and convinced fourteen of them to pass anti-shariah legislation. As a lawyer, Yerushalmi must have known that the First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents any religious law from taking over the US. He didn’t care. His purpose was to otherize Muslims, portray shariah as backward and barbaric, and portray Muslims as incapable of following their country’s laws.
That’s ironic, because Muslims are required, under shariah itself, to follow the laws of the country in which they live. Moreover, shariah is not what Yerushalmi and the Taliban say it is. As Noah Feldman, Harvard professor of Jewish and Constitutional law remarks, “For most of its history, Islamic law [shariah] offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world.”
Shariah means “the path of God.” Loosely, shariah just means Islam. It’s not law the way we think of law—rigid and enforceable—but rather a mass of religious guidelines primarily relating to personal conduct. Shariah is not static, either; it contains internal methodologies to change and adapt according to time and place.
Shariah developed the kinds of principles we take for granted: the right to a fair trial, innocent until proven guilty, and the right not to incriminate oneself. Moreover, all Islamic law had to further these five rights: the right to life, family, intellect, resources, and religion. These Islamic principles sound a lot like our beloved constitutional principles—but they were established over a thousand years ago, long before England finally began to stop using trial by fire and trial by water to determine guilt or innocence.
Indeed, when the English colonized India in the eighteenth century, they began overturning shariah cases on grounds that shariah was too lenient.
Today, shariah is not the law of the land anywhere in the world. Iran, for example, has a constitution and civil code and has simply tacked on Islamic-sounding provisions. Saudi Arabia is an amalgam of cultural tribal law and Islam.
The Taliban violate shariah, whatever they say. Shariah forbids taking a life except in very few circumstances: in legitimate warfare, as punishment after a fair trial, and in self-defense of imminent threat. This is no different from modern Western law. Shooting protesters, as the Taliban have done, is murder under shariah. Beating and killing women for perceived offenses in dress and conduct, as the Taliban have done, is forbidden under shariah. So is rape and forced marriage.
As for amputating limbs and cutting off hands, these were typical of ancient, homiletic punishments designed to deter criminal behavior in the absence of police forces to enforce the law. Even then, shariah contains so many procedural requirements for proving cases for theft and adultery (as well as defenses for the accused) that it is virtually impossible to actually apply the punishments. These punishments were in abeyance for centuries, until fundamentalists revived them in the twentieth century.
Yet, shariah has become synonymous with backwardness. Lately, even the recent harsh abortion law in Texas (which effectively reverses Roe v. Wade in that state) has provoked hashtags such as #ShariaLawInTexas and a cartoon featuring a Texan and a Taliban fist-bumping. But shariah prohibits neither abortion nor birth control. Islamic scholars differ on when in the pregnancy abortion is permissible, but the great majority allow it. It’s the Christian right, not shariah, that’s responsible for abortion bans.
In fact, if Muslims were so misogynistic, we wouldn’t have had fourteen Muslim women presidents and prime ministers of Muslim populations in the last few decades alone. If Islam were so sexist, Muslim-American women wouldn’t be the second-most educated female faith group in the US (after Jewish-American women), and they wouldn’t have the most parity of income with men of any faith group in the US. It’s poverty that determines opportunities for women, not religion.
Majorities of Muslim Americans favor Black Lives Matter, same-sex marriage, and abortion rights. Muslim Americans are the faith group most likely to reject attacks against civilians (indeed, shariah prohibits attacks against civilians).
So let’s stop using shariah as a catch-all shorthand for bad behavior. Let’s stop giving a pass to bigotry when it applies to Muslims and Islam. And let’s stop treating groups like the Taliban as representative of Islam and shariah, rather than the other 1.7 billion or so Muslims in the world. These attitudes not only hurt Muslims; they hurt all Americans.
About the Author
Sumbul Ali-Karamali is a former corporate lawyer with an additional degree in Islamic law. Her newest book is called Demystifying Shariah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Taking Over Our Country.