May 2017 Church & State - May 2017

Will The Real Theocrats Please Stand Up?

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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 history) 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.

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