Clutching at Islamist straws


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"This song is called, 'Sharia Law in the USA,' " Basim Usmani yells, then slams on his electric bass while screaming into the microphone.

In the crowd, exuberant women in headscarves dance with quiet, bearded men. It's a hubbub of noise and sound that would make the Dead Kennedys proud. And in true punk-rock tradition, the song is primarily ironic: This scene, from Taqwacore, a documentary on underground Muslim bands), is meant to satirize the ludicrous concept of Islamic religious law being assimilated into American courts.

Someone tell that to Newt Gingrich, who picked up on stirring anti-Islamic sentiment and issued proclamations twice this year on the possibility of Sharia"creeping" into American life. "One of the things I am going to suggest today is a federal law which says no court anywhere in the United States under any circumstance is allowed to consider Sharia as a replacement for American law," Gingrich told the American Enterprise Institute in July.

The fact that these sentiments are completely ungrounded in reality should be enough to result in widespread disregard. But their real-world consequences for Muslims also lie unacknowledged by Gingrich and his ilk.

Gingrich's statements aren't an isolated incident: The Republican Party of Iowa's 2010 platform included a plank opposing the implementation of Sharia law. Oklahoma's voters recently approved a ballot measure that bans judges from using Sharia and international law when deciding cases. All of these cases have acknowledged the truth: So far, no reports of systematic Sharia law in the U.S. have been corroborated.

The principle, even solitary, case dragged out by those afraid of "creeping Sharia" was a New Jersey case in which a judge denied a restraining order to a wife whose husband raped and abused her. The judge stated that he didn't believe the husband had a "criminal desire" and excused it as a cultural matter — both husband and wife were Muslim. Sharia was never mentioned in the decision, and an appeals-court judge overturned the verdict, saying the judge "was mistaken" (quite the understatement).

In other words, the majority of Oklahoma voters, the Iowa Republican Party, and Gingrich are grasping at Islamist straws. It's an easy political ploy: Raise the specter, however misleading, of Iran-style stonings, and watch the renewed flooding of support. For a majority Christian public, focusing on an outward enemy — or, if not an outward one, at least one wholly alien — can erase the troubling divisiveness closer to home.

The success of anti-Muslim laws cloaked in anti-Sharia rhetoric is hardly surprising, given the recent furor over the Islamic center misleadingly dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque." But capitulating to fear with half-cocked policy has severe, if unplanned, consequences.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is challenging the Oklahoma measure in court, claiming that it violates the First Amendment and that its sweeping ban on international law means that foreign marriages, divorces, and international business law will no longer be honored by the state. The Seminole Nation has expressed concerns that the amendment could be interpreted to deny tribal-law parity.

Did the Oklahoma Legislature and populace predict these problems? Certainly not — but that's to be expected from a reactionary law against an imaginary threat.

There is no place in rational governance for laws that sound good but go unexplored. When these laws target a minority group, they run the risk of damaging American pluralism, overreaching their explicit provisions, and expressing an overwhelming ignorance.

While the Republican Party of Iowa's platform is decidedly right-wing, Iowa citizens should know better than to back "pre-emptive" measures that purport to ward off future catastrophes.

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