By Bruce Gourley
Hate crimes in America against Muslims have risen to levels not seen since 9/11. President Donald J. Trump inflamed and rode Islamophobia to the White House, drawing the overwhelming support of a key anti-Islam voting constituency – right-wing evangelical Christians. Upon taking office, Trump signed an executive order travel ban targeting immigrants from seven Muslim nations, and all refugees. Many of his evangelical Christian supporters cheered, but their joy was short lived as courts quickly blocked the president’s unconstitutional action.
Trump claimed, without basis, that his ban was necessary to protect the United States from Islamic terrorists. In reality, there have been no terrorist acts to date committed on American soil by persons from the nations Trump targeted.
Trump systematically exploits the emotional, irrational fears all too common in today’s America. The truth is that you and I are far more likely to be killed by lightning, a dog attack, hornets or wasps, suicide, murder, a home-grown Christian terrorist attack, choking, suffocation, walking, drowning, poisoning, pollution, a heat wave, electricity or radiation, an airplane accident, a stray asteroid or almost anything else you can imagine than by Muslim refugees.
Irrational fear of Muslims, however, extends beyond refugees. Many Americans also obsess over the illusionary prospect of “Sharia law” infiltrating courtrooms in the United States.
Which begs the question: what is “Sharia law”?
Practicing Muslims believe in one God, Allah, and the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 A.D.). “Allah” is a derivation of the Old Testament, Hebrew “Elohim” and is the same God that Jews and Christians worship. But Muslims depart from Judeo-Christian monotheists in their belief in Muhammad as a special messenger from God who dictated the words of God as preserved in the Quran, Islam’s sacred book.
In a fashion similar to the scope and function of canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, Sharia is Islamic law in the form of legal, moral and ethical philosophy.
Evolving after Muhammad’s death and drawing from the Quran and Sunnah (essentially the collected teachings and sayings of Muhammad), Sharia is divine, immutable, comprehensive, interpretive in nature and defines how an individual Muslim is to conduct his or her life and behave toward others. It also governs the manner in which Islamic communities, groups, social structures and economic organizations interact.
Sharia, in other words, is the prescribed religious path that Muslims follow. And like other religious paths, Sharia is highly interpretive and in practice is expressed in divergent directions.
On the conservative end of the Islamic spectrum, many Muslim-dominant nations have enshrined Sharia, to varying degrees, into constitutional theocracies – including Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. Such nations often adhere to fundamentalist expressions of Islam in denying freedom of religion, freedom of thought, gender equality or sexual freedom. In turn, fundamentalist Islam is sometimes a breeding ground for extremism or terrorism, a violent offshoot that American national security analysts estimate represents a miniscule .007 percent of the world’s Muslim population.
Few Muslims approve of extremism, and many living within Is- lamic- dominant nations are also opposed to the far lesser – yet still harsh – conservative, theocratic interpretation and application of Sharia. Nonetheless, scholarly polls and surveys of Muslims worldwide – most of whom live in Islamic nations – indicate that the majority do not approve of separation of religion and state as practiced in the United States, but rather support the integration of Sharia, in varying degrees, with modern governance.
Apart from Islamic-dominant nations, however, a more progressive expression of Muslim faith is common, with the United States leading the way. While personally and communally practicing Sharia, most American Muslims embrace church-state separation. No national Muslim organiza- tion in the United States has ever advocated for Sharia to supersede or replace American courts. Indeed, many American Muslims have emigrated to the United States in order to escape discriminatory, oppressive theocratic regimes.
Why, then, have more than a dozen states in recent years introduced and/or enacted legislation banning Sharia (sometimes referred to obliquely as “foreign law”) in judicial proceedings?
A post 9/11 conservative political and evangelical backlash against Muslims at home, accompanied by America’s often-inept military war on terrorism in Muslim nations abroad, provide the broad context. At the same time, an escalating conservative echo chamber of fear-mongering and fake news further stokes hatred of Muslims at large.
Within this vortex of ideological rage, heated rhetoric, ceaseless war and fake news, many opponents of President Barack Obama, including Donald Trump, falsely labeled him a Muslim as a way of discrediting Obama.
The movement to ban Sharia in courtrooms began during Obama’s presidency. In 2010 Newt Gingrich fanned the flames by proclaiming, “I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it.”
Reality, however, is quite different. In America, far-right evangelical Christians are far more likely than Muslims to oppose the First Amendment’s religion-state separation and to demand that religion – their religion – shape government. In addition, evangelicals are far more opposed to same-sex marriage than Muslims.
In other words, far-right evangelicals, while pointing fingers at Muslims, are themselves the greater danger to America’s freedoms.
Indeed, the Religious Right’s anti-freedom vision for America is already partially realized. According to a study of religion in American courtrooms, Christian “judges’ personal religious beliefs and religious education very often find a place in decisions they write.”
Scholar Sanja Zgonjanin has noted that the Bible is often cited in courtrooms, particularly the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. While “courts of the nineteenth century rarely quoted the Bible,” biblical quotes in courtrooms since “are much more characteristic” and “a matter of great concern for anyone who believes that judicial decision-making should not be based on comprehensive doctrines such as religion”.
The common use of the Bible in U.S. courts is a reflection of the Old Testament legal codes that governed America’s colonial Christian theocracies. Jewish scholars have long recognized colonial use of the Mosaic Code (the Hebrew Torah, or first five books of the Old Testament) as, in the words of one, “the most potent force in the legislation of early New England commonwealths.” Another noted that colonial theocracies often enacted “a stricter, more fundamentalist observance than Judaism had ever seen.”
In short, despite stated public opposition to “foreign” religious law in American jurisprudence, evangelicals openly welcome their preferred foreign religious law – the Bible – in courtroom proceedings. At the same time, the rare courtroom reference to Sharia draws condemnation.
Christian evangelicals, in other words, by actively seeking to integrate Mosaic legal codes into American governance in order to civilly discriminate against women, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, atheists and other undesirable persons, are guilty of that which they falsely accuse American Muslims.
In reality, American Muslims practicing Sharia are vanguards of a growing progressive Islam that offers global Muslims hope of a better tomorrow. The real threat to America is religious fundamentalism of any kind that seeks to destroy our nation’s separation of church and state. Fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity poses a clear danger to America in the form of opposition to religion-state separation, frequent judicial references to the Bible in courtrooms and politicians and lawmakers eager to please theocratic-minded Christians.
Most American Muslims are grateful to live in a nation in which religion and state are constitutionally separate. For the sake of all freedom-loving Americans, Muslims included, the Religious Right’s quest for dominance in courtrooms, state houses and the nation’s capital must be resisted.
Bruce T. Gourley is a historian (Ph.D. American history, with minor emphasis in Islamic his- tory) and author of eight books. He is the executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, and lives near Bozeman, Mont. His personal website is brucegourley. com.