Shariah in the West
by Stephen Schwartz
On October 28, 2009, Luqman Ameen Abdullah, an African American Muslim, was killed in a shootout with agents of the FBI in Detroit. The dead man was one of twelve individuals sought for firearms violations and conspiracy to engage in theft and fraud. But they were also members of a little-known Islamist network dedicated to the establishment, through violence if necessary, of an enclave on U.S. territory to be governed by Islamic religious law, or Shariah. Their designated candidate to rule this separatist territory was the prominent black nationalist known in the 1960s as H. Rap Brown, and now as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, who at the time of the Detroit incident was serving a life term without parole at the U.S. federal prison in Florence, Colorado, for murdering a police officer in Georgia (along with other charges).
The conspiracy to establish Shariah in a secessionist enclave within America never, it seems, became a practical attempt. But fantasies of introducing Shariah in the United States have gained increasing attention as American society has come under assault, both globally and domestically, from radical Muslims. The most widely acknowledged case of Shariah imposition so far known originated at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, and was revealed to the wider public in 2006. There, immigrant Somali Muslim cabdrivers would not take airport arrival passengers carrying alcohol or accompanied by dogs (including guide dogs for blind customers), on the grounds that for them to do so would violate Shariah. The Muslim drivers had begun their boycott on liquor and dogs about ten years previously, and airport customers had complained about the situation. In one incident sixteen drivers successively declined to carry "objectionable" passengers. The Somali cabdrivers applied to the Metropolitan Airports Commission for authorization to refuse service on religious grounds without being sent to the back of the airport taxi line and losing opportunities to make money.
The Metropolitan Airports Commission rejected the petition, but proposed a supposedly moderate compromise: drivers who would not carry alcohol or dogs could have a special light installed on their cabs indicating their enforcement of a ban. The commission produced this "solution" after consultation with the Muslim American Society (MAS), a radical Islamist group that favors introduction of Shariah into the United States. But while the commission imagined it was deliberating and acting fairly, the proposal for special taxis for Muslim drivers had potentially disastrous consequences. A public agency would have, for the first time, established a Shariah law interpretation on public property in the United States.
After deliberating, however, the commission found against the Somali cabbies and denied their request. The old rules continued in place: drivers who refused customers went to the back of the line. But nothing had been done to actively restrain the drivers from their discriminatory actions.
Americans have also recently learned of so-called honor murders committed by Muslims in the United States, and generally believe such crimes, usually carried out against family members, are a Shariah-based practice.
Early in 2009, Muzammil Hassan, forty-four, an immigrant from South Asia, was charged with second-degree murder in the killing and decapitation of his thirty-seven-year-old wife, Aasiya. The couple were prominent in the American Muslim community as proprietors of Bridges TV, a television station near Buffalo, New York, that broadcast Muslim content. Aasiya Hassan had complained to local authorities of domestic violence and had filed for divorce, obtaining a "stay-away" order against her husband. At the time of writing, Muzammil Hassan awaited trial in his wife's death. The crime seemed to many observers to be a so-called honor murder.
On October 20, 2009, an Iraqi immigrant girl, Noor Almaleki, age twenty, was run down and killed by a Jeep allegedly driven by her father, Faleh Hassan Almaleki, forty-eight, in an Arizona suburb. The father fled the United States but was captured in London. Reporters learned that Almaleki had taken his daughter to Iraq on "a family visit" in 2008 and had forced her into an arranged marriage with a man unknown to her. The father's explanation for the homicidal deed of which he stood accused was familiar: his daughter had dishonored his family by becoming "too Western," including working at a fast-food restaurant. At the time of writing, Faleh Almaleki was held in a jail in Phoenix, Arizona, on a suicide watch.
These incidents have been few but disturbing in America. The apparent invasion of Shariah law has been more pronounced in Europe. England has become the main field of confrontation over this issue. Differing polls and surveys have shown that up to 40 percent of British Muslims supposedly want the introduction of Shariah law in the country, while 41 percent opposed it and 19 percent were undecided. These figures, elicited by London's Sunday Telegraph in 2006, were not definitive. The potential opposition of 60 percent of British Muslims to introduction of Shariah was left unaddressed.
More important, the Sunday Telegraph's description of Shariah was vague and appeared deliberately alarmist. No distinction was made in the reportage between Shariah as religious law involving the personal matters of Muslim observance, such as diet, form of prayer, charity, and burial—which is how most Muslims in the West view Shariah—and what the newspaper described as follows: "Islamic law is used in large parts of the Middle East, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and is enforced by religious police. Special courts can hand down harsh punishments which can include stoning and amputation." The British non-Muslim public was left with the strong impression that nearly half of British Muslims sought the introduction of stoning and amputation as punishments in the country, with the threat that such would be applied to non-Muslims.
The scenario was nightmarish and, as a media projection, profoundly irresponsible. Unfortunately, this impression was reinforced by more accurate reporting on Shariah practice in Britain—specifically, on the emergence of informal "Shariah courts," which handle divorces for Muslim women who were married in Pakistan or India. If their marriages were not recorded with the British authorities, they cannot seek a U.K. divorce. These courts often leave wives at the mercy of their husbands on the pretext of reconciliation, but also charge the petitioners for divorce large sums to examine their cases. Proponents of the Islamic divorce system in Britain have called for governmental authority to back up the decisions of these improvised tribunals.
The 2006 Sunday Telegraph poll was organized after years of quiet penetration, as well as flamboyant radical agitation, in favor of Shariah-based practices in Britain. Shariah-compliant financial products, which do not invest on the basis of earning interest or in Islamically banned economic sectors involving alcohol, pork, gambling, or other vices, had been offered to British Muslims by British banks and investment houses since the early 1980s. By 1997, British financial institutions had similarly launched Shariah-compliant housing finance.
As the twentieth century ended, radical Shariah rhetoric in the West was exemplified by a British Muslim extremist, Egyptian-born Abu Hamza Al-Masri, who in 1999 justified the murder of Britons kidnapped in Yemen and stated that he organized military training for his followers inside Britain. He titled his organization Supporters of Shariah (SOS). His appearance was notable because of his loss of both hands and an eye, allegedly in Afghanistan, and use of prosthetic hooks at the ends of his arms. Abu Hamza Al-Masri defined terrorism as follows: "If it means killing a few people to stop the killing of more people it is justified." After a series of arrests, his dismissal as a mosque preacher, and other incidents, he was sentenced in 2006 for inciting murder and racial hatred. In 2008, the British authorities ruled that he could be extradited to the United States to face terrorism charges, but he remains in British custody while U.K. courts decide if his imprisonment in Oregon, while on trial, would violate his civil rights.
Al-Masri was a minor figure, notwithstanding his considerable media impact. A more alarming suggestion was voiced in 2008, in a television program, Divorce Shariah Style, broadcast by U.K. Channel 4. Sheikh Hassan, the senior judge and secretary of the oldest Islamic law body in Britain, the Shariah Council at Regents Park Mosque in London, said, "We know that if Shariah laws are implemented then you can change this country into a haven of peace. Because once a thief's hand is cut off, nobody is going to steal. If only once an adulterer is stoned, nobody is going to commit this crime at all. There would be no rapist[s] at all. This is why we say that, yes, we want to offer it to the British society. . . . And if they don't accept it, they would need more and more prisons."
Radical Shariah agitation has been less prominent in the Netherlands, Germany, and France. Dutch Muslim agitation against the politician Geert Wilders, who is frankly anti-Islam, has generated small but noisy demonstrations for Shariah to be introduced into Europe. Mohammed Bouyeri, the killer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004, was reported by Dutch media to have declared that the country's "parliament will be renamed a Sharia court and the chairman's gavel will fall to ratify Islamic [criminal] sentences." Such statements are obviously alarming to secular Europeans. But no Dutch poll has indicated a significant share of local Muslim opinion in favor of Shariah; nor has such a result appeared in Germany.
In France, Le Monde des Religions, a special-interest journal published by the leading Parisian daily, completed a poll of French Muslims in 2008 that showed a very different picture from that in Britain. On Shariah, 75 percent of those polled in France were opposed to its imposition: 38 percent said Islamic law does not apply in non-Muslim countries, while 37 percent declared that some elements of Shariah could be applied if they were adapted to French law. Only 17 percent claimed that Shariah should have jurisdiction in all countries, and 8 percent declined to comment.
Still, there is no doubt that Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and France have experienced atrocious crimes such as so-called honor murders, forced marriage, and, in France, female genital mutilation. These horrific practices, while not specifically based in Shariah, have been vocally supported by fundamentalist clerics as well as by common practice in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. In this way, whether or not they are Islamic in essence, they have been assimilated into Islamic culture.
The Shariah debate in Western Europe has been badly complicated by the incompetent intervention of non-Muslim politicians, who, in their desire to appear tolerant, have offered opinions in favor of the introduction of Shariah into their countries. Such individuals have included, most notoriously, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Communion, who in 2008 called for establishment of some (unspecified) aspects of Shariah alongside existing civil law in the United Kingdom. Williams commented that some form of official recognition for elements of Shariah was "unavoidable." His capitulatory gesture was soon echoed by a similar appeal from Britain's Lord Chief Justice, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers. A leading Dutch conservative politician, Piet Hein Donner, had already declared, in 2006, that the Netherlands could adopt Shariah as law if two-thirds of its parliament voted to do so.
Late in 2007, a family court judge in Frankfurt caused a sensation when she (unnamed in media according to German practice) ruled that the Qur'an supported the right of husbands to beat their wives. The opinion was delivered in a case brought by a Moroccan woman against her Moroccan husband. The judge held that issuance of a protective order would be sufficient relief for the plaintiff, who withdrew an earlier demand for a divorce. An outcry against the opinion followed, from all German political parties of the right and left. After widespread debate on the case, the judge was threatened with professional sanctions.
In July 2008, another controversy began when German authorities announced that a new marriage law, to take effect at the beginning of 2009, would permit religious weddings to be solemnized without civil registration. But marriages in churches and mosques, if not registered civilly, would exclude the parties from recourse to the courts for divorce, rights of inheritance, and other civil remedies—and might thus produce complaints by Muslim women before Shariah tribunals, as in Britain.
These problems were underscored late in 2008 when a politician representing the Free Democratic Party, Georg Barfuss, opined that Shariah could be established in his home state of Bavaria, if compatible with the Constitution.
And even in France, where one would expect that strong traditions of secular governance and the acceptance of it by most French Muslims would be a barrier to such developments, the authorities have so far failed to adequately resolve a court decision upholding the alleged Shariah-based right of a Muslim man to repudiate his wife on their wedding night when he perceived she was not a virgin.
In all these instances, from the remarks of Archbishop Williams to the controversy over a bride's virginity in France, non-Muslim public figures seemed motivated by ignorance and a patronizing attitude in "offering" Muslims a Shariah the believers themselves did not necessarily or uniformly desire.
Extreme critics of Islam have analyzed such events—attempts to impose Shariah on non-Muslims, so-called honor murders, and the naivete of Western politicians in embracing some form of Shariah—as evidence that the West and its legal systems face imminent collapse. Such polemicists predict wholesale Islamization and waves of brutal Shariah penalties, plus more so-called honor crimes, and worse abuse of women, including imposition of body and face coverings. Above all, they argue that all Muslims everywhere wish for, or are commanded to work toward, the imposition of Shariah.
Unfortunately, neither the Shariah proponents, nor the fearmongers exercised by its specter, nor the political figures eager to placate Muslim opinion seem to know anything about Shariah and its real content.
To begin with, there is no evidence that any but a small minority of American Muslims favors any form of institutional Shariah in the United States. Unfortunately, the "Wahhabi lobby" of established American Muslim communal organizations, created and financed by Saudi Arabia, is dominated by acolytes of Islamic law, who have articulated their dream of a Shariah-ruled America. But aside from rare incidents such as the Detroit shootout, agitation for Shariah among American Muslims is seldom visible in the community. On the other hand, as in Western Europe, American Shariah fanatics have their friends in high places. Dalia Mogahed, a member of President Barack Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, late in 2009 defended Shariah by claiming that her global polling, through the Gallup Organization, showed "the majority of women around the world associate sharia with 'gender justice.'" Presumably, her reference to "the majority of women" (as opposed to Muslim women) was a slip of the tongue. But there is no doubt that in her perspective, Shariah as public law guarantees Muslim women a dignity absent in the West.
Mogahed also commented benevolently regarding unidentified people, including non-Muslims, who believe "that the United States, and Britain, and other countries should be open to the concept of integrating Shariah into law in Muslim-majority societies." She added, "of course, most Muslim-majority societies do have Shariah as a part of their laws already." In reality, most Muslim-majority societies do not currently treat Shariah as a part of common public law, but as a separate corpus applicable only to exclusively religious matters. Shariah-dominated countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan represent exceptions, not the rule.
Most Muslims in the West accept a standard interpretation of Shariah, which has held throughout Islamic history that Muslim migrants to non-Muslim countries must accept the laws and customs of the lands to which they move. Traditional Muslim scholars emphasize that the Prophet Muhammad called on Muslims who leave Islamic territory "to listen to and obey the ruler, as long as one is not ordered to carry out a sin." No non-Muslim government requires Muslims to violate the rules of their religion by, for example, drinking alcohol, and most afford them liberties that are absent in Muslim countries.
Further, most Muslims living in the West, as in the French example, accept that Islamic law cannot be exported to countries without a Muslim majority. This is also a rule firmly based in Shariah. Most Muslims living in the West only see certain strictly personal matters, previously mentioned here, as subject to Shariah: diet, the form of prayer, payment of obligatory charity, and burial. These matters do not require the involvement of public institutions, except for coroners' offices at death. This traditional and moderate definition of Shariah—as a set of religious observances rather than public or criminal law—has been established in the Muslim world for centuries. But most American Muslims know little about Shariah. For example, the Minneapolis Somali cabdrivers were seemingly unaware that Islam does not bar non-Muslims from consuming alcohol, or Muslims from transporting such people, and that only certain rigid interpretations express disfavor of dogs as unclean.
In short, the call for introduction of Shariah in non-Muslim countries is a new and radical concept, without support in Islamic legal traditions. Realizing that any discussion of a Shariah regime in Western countries is not only deeply disturbing to Western non-Muslims but is also rejected by the great majority of Western Muslims, a small group of powerful fundamentalists, associated with the Egyptian theologian Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and the Swiss Muslim author Tariq Ramadan, have developed a new concept, "Shariah for Muslim minorities living in the West," or "parallel Shariah." Their intention is to erect a separate legal system in the Western countries that would have jurisdiction over Muslims, backed by the authority of the non-Muslim state. This group of "parallel Shariah" promoters admits that their aim is not, as it might seem, the protection of Muslims from discrimination, but rather the religious transformation of Western society through an Islamist version of the "long march through the institutions" adopted by the leftist radicals of the 1960s and 1970s.
But they, too, have little support among ordinary Western Muslims, and the concept has only caught on among Islamic fundamentalists. In the United States, Saudi-oriented Wahhabi clerics and their academic sympathizers generally observe a silence on the topic, and elsewhere, established Muslim leaders—in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and France—support loyalty to local institutions as practiced by most of their congregants. Yet "parallel Shariah" appeals to Western sensibilities regarding unfair treatment of Muslims, while exploiting the general ignorance of Shariah among Western Muslims themselves.
Some supporters of Shariah in Canada and the United Kingdom have called for introduction of "Islamic mediation services" in which Shariah decisions would be rendered through conciliation by clerics, with enforcement by the non-Muslim authorities. But even if such a legal paradigm were based on exclusively voluntary participation, the probability remains that such proceedings, in the U.K. and Canadian Muslim communities today, would be governed by fundamentalists.
What, then, is the threat of Shariah to Western liberty, and what should be done about it? The problem is not one of a sudden radical Muslim takeover of the West. Rather, it resides with a small, unpopular, but powerful Saudi-financed layer of top Muslim leaders who seek to undermine Western canons of legal equality by introducing "parallel Shariah." While it may seem innocuous to some, such a conception is pernicious in seeking to unduly increase the influence in Western institutions of a single religion, Islam, while driving Western Muslims apart from their non-Muslim neighbors. This is a radical and seditious notion even if it does not call for a violent assault on Western society.
Relations between religious communities and government authorities in the United States are based on a principle known as "reasonable accommodation." Under reasonable accommodation, for example, employers are required to allow their workers to observe religious holidays if they do not conflict with business needs.
"Parallel Shariah" exemplifies a demand for unreasonable accommodation of Islam in non-Muslim countries. Muslims living in the West should be reminded, whether by their authentically moderate leaders (who have played such a role in France), or by media—or, if necessary, by Western governments—that their own religion calls on them to accept Western law, to make no attempts to subvert it, and to limit Shariah to purely religious matters. All other "Islamic" notions about Shariah in the West are tropes intended to radicalize Western Muslims. "Parallel Shariah" and "Islamic mediation" may not threaten the immediate freedoms of non-Muslims, but they are liable to endanger the liberties of Muslims themselves. Ultimately, any scheme to divide or dilute the universal protections of Western law will undermine the liberty of all.
[This essay was published in the volume New Threats to Freedom, edited by Adam Bellow and published by Templeton Press. For more information see the website http://newthreatstofreedom.com/.]