The threat of the infiltration of Sharia, or Islamic law, into the American court system is one of the more pernicious conspiracy theories to gain traction in our country in recent years. The notion that Islam is insidiously making inroads in the United States through the application of religious law is seeping into the mainstream, with even some presidential candidates voicing fears about the supposed threat of Sharia to our way of life and as many as 13 states considering or having already passed bills that would prohibit the application of Sharia law.
Louisiana and Tennessee were among the first to approve such measures. The bills were based on model legislation issued by the American Public Policy Alliance, an unabashedly anti-Muslim advocacy group that defends the legislation as seeking to "protect American citizens' constitutional rights against the infiltration and incursion of foreign laws and foreign legal doctrines, especially Islamic Sharia Law."
When the legislation was introduced in the Tennessee state Senate in early 2010, the bill defined Sharia as a "legal political military doctrine and system adhered to, or minimally advocated by, tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of its followers around the world." In defense of the bill, state Sen. Bill Ketron said it "deals solely with a single part of Sharia that is strictly political in nature," and "in no way inserts itself into the religious laws of Islam."
The language was nearly identical to that of similar bills considered in other states, some of which were thinly disguised in terms of protecting against "the application of foreign law."
All of this anti-Sharia activity has come despite the complete absence of evidence of the unconstitutional application of foreign or religious law in our judicial system. It has also come with a great deal of political handwringing -- and myth making -- about the threat of Sharia overtaking this country. This has led, in turn, to a false perception among a growing number of Americans that Sharia is a very real threat to our way of life and constitutional freedoms.
In fact, these legislative efforts are the proverbial solution in search of a problem. The separation of church and state embodied in U.S. and state constitutions prohibits our courts from applying or considering religious law in any way that would constitute government advancement of or entanglement with religious law.
But the anti-Sharia bills are more than a matter of unnecessary public policy. These measures are, at their core, predicated on prejudice and ignorance. They constitute a form of camouflaged bigotry that enables their proponents to advance an idea that finds fault with the Muslim faith and paints all Muslim Americans as foreigners and anti-American crusaders.
It is true that Sharia is being used elsewhere around the world in dangerous ways. While Sharia law can address many daily public and private concerns, it is nonetheless subject to radical interpretation by individuals or groups who subscribe to a more puritanical form of Islamic jurisprudence. Some individuals try to interpret Sharia law for their own radical agendas. It raises more serious concerns when it comes to implementing Sharia law in its entirety, as can be seen with the examples of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban. But that certainly doesn't apply to America, where concerns about a "creeping Sharia law" are the stuff of pure paranoia.
If the hysteria over Sharia law continues to percolate through our political and social discourse, there is bound to be unintended consequences.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in an uncertain economy with millions of Americans still out of work, we also face the prospect of a political season in which more candidates may be tempted to invoke this mythological threat in an effort to pander to bigotry and fear, and to score political points.
We stand at a crossroads in American society. We have the option of heading down a path toward a greater tolerance of anti-Muslim xenophobia and fear of the "stranger in our midst," or we can rededicate ourselves to the ideal of an America that is open and welcoming to immigrants as well as minority groups who have been here for decades. Let us hope that the better nature of America will enable us to proceed down the second path and reject those who seek to divide us for political gain, or those who wish to stereotype and scapegoat an entire people because of their religious faith.
We should never diminish the very real threat of terrorism motivated by Islamist fundamentalism coming again to our shores. But as responsible, free-thinking Americans, we must be careful to distinguish between the true threats to our freedoms, and identifying their sources, and those who loudly declaim against threats that don't really exist.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and author most recently of Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype.