The Truth About Shariah
by Stephen Schwartz
In the 20th century, the West faced threats from despotism, Fascism, communism and terrorism. While we continue to mobilize against all of these scourges, more subtle threats have slipped past our intellectual defences. In an ongoing series adapted from a newly published book, New Threats to Freedom, we examine the phenomenon from the perspective of nine different writers.---
Years of quiet penetration, as well as flamboyant radical agitation, have favoured introduction of shariah-based practices among Muslims in Britain, especially in the areas of divorce and finance. But 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 favour 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 Koran supported the right of husbands to beat their wives. 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 -- which range from attempts to impose shariah on non-Muslims, to so-called honour murders under pretext of Islamic law, 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 honour 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 spectre, 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 number of Muslims living in the West favour any form of institutional shariah in the countries where they reside. But that minority has an outsized voice: The "Wahhabi lobby" of established North 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 North America. Further, as in Western Europe, North American shariah fanatics have their friends in high places. Dalia Mogahed, a member of U.S. President Barack Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood 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.
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 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 see only certain strictly personal matters 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, in Minneapolis, Minn., Somali cabdrivers attempted to bar riders from carrying alcohol or travelling with dogs. They were seemingly unaware that Islam does not bar non-Muslims from consuming alcohol, and that only certain rigid interpretations express disfavor of dogs as unclean. 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 caught on only 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 neighbours. 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 legal principle known as "reasonable accommodation" (a term later popularized in Quebec). 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 individual 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.
- Adapted with permission from New Threats To Freedom, ©2010 by Templeton Press. For more information, please visit newthreatstofreedom.com.