Did you know there’s a prominent religious group, right here in the United States, with its own legal system?
Adherents have their own courts, their own rules governing family relations and business laws foreign to American jurisprudence — and they sometimes rely on U.S. courts to enforce their transactions and recognize special carve-outs for their practices. When it comes to this group’s laws governing marriage, to the untrained eye it appears downright medieval in its view of women.
Think I’m talking about Muslims and some of that community’s embrace of the Islamic legal tradition known as Sharia? Think again, because the Jewish community has enjoyed American recognition of halacha — the Jewish legal system based on the Torah and rabbinic exegesis as codified in the Talmud and later works — for decades.
And yet, there are some in our community who are more than happy to bask in the benefits afforded Judaism and its legal tradition, while at the same time wishing to deny such benefits to Islam and Sharia. And there are a whole bunch of other Americans who don’t give two hoots about religious pluralism or legal acknowledgement of faith groups that are not Christian.
That’s a shame, because far from the conventional wisdom prevalent among the many nativists on the right, a respect for and embrace of other religious traditions has been a part of the American fabric since before its founding. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and others all expressed in their writings support for the idea that freedom of worship is a necessary pillar of American democracy.
Of course, the organizers of June 10’s “March Against Sharia” in cities stretching from Harrisburg to Seattle will not say that they are anti-Muslim.
Lisa Joseph, a Jewish woman who organized the march in Syracuse, N.Y., instead told a North Country Public Radio reporter that she and her fellow protesters “want to make sure that the radical Islamist ideology did not hijack the peaceful Muslims here in this country.” Joseph put the rally together, she said, because she was “against female genital mutilation, honor killings, throwing gays off of buildings, stoning people to death.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find an American Muslim who was in favor of any of that. That doesn’t mean no such person exists, but I’m sure there are some non-Muslims out there — say, of the Westboro Baptist Church variety — who wouldn’t have a problem with summarily executing homosexuals. And yet, no one is suggesting that the United States ban Christian legal rulings — did you know that the Catholic Church has its own canonical law? — similar to those in downtown Chicago who chanted, “Ban Sharia!”
The fact is, marching against Sharia — a legal code most of the protesters know nothing about — is as much about marching against Islam as marching against halacha would be about marching against Judaism. This is why backing this movement is as un-Jewish as it’s un-American.
People are free to believe what they want to believe, of course, and to protest whatever they want to protest. But I’m for keeping things logically consistent and intellectually honest. The same people who are calling for the states and Congress to forbid judges to take Sharia or other “foreign” law into account should also be calling for any attempt to enforce a heter iska, interpret the demands of a ketubah or determine the dictates of kashrut for a Jewish prisoner as fundamentally against American tradition.
For that matter, they should also prepare for a host of U.S.-based multinational corporations — who must engage in business subject to the laws of the nations where they operate — to either mount a vigorous battle against such bans or severely curtail their business. What good, for instance, is a contract entered into subject to Saudi Arabia’s Sharia-based law if ExxonMobil can’t enforce it in a U.S. court?
Israel understands that Sharia is not the enemy. It even has its own Islamic court system alongside the Rabbanut to adjudicate family and personal status issues; the country last month appointed the first female judge to sit in its Islamic courts.
People like Joseph claim that Sharia is interested in global domination. But no system can lay claim to such a strategy. It’s instead individual people who seek to bend ideologies to their own devices. America is not in danger of seeing its courts turned over to the dictates of Sharia scholars; it is instead in danger of the terrorists and would-be terrorists — whether the homegrown militia member like Timothy McVeigh, the second-generation immigrant or the Saudi hijacker — seeking to wreak destruction and havoc.
It’s time to focus the nation’s attention on larger threats. In addition to terrorism, there’s the specter of other countries exploiting our cybersecurity weaknesses to harm our economy, as well as a host of pressing domestic concerns. We’ve got better things to do than to treat Sharia and Muslims as boogeymen.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.