Monday, January 2, 2012

The Imaginary Threat from Sharia Law

I was at a party recently where the guests weren't afraid of discussing politics--a refreshing contrast from dull conversations where people studiously avoid any possibly controversial topic. A woman friend I don't know particularly well suddenly asserted that Sharia law--Islamic law based on the Koran and interpretations of it--was being used to decide cases in U.S. courts.

She startled me. I immediately envisioned American women slipping down a road toward the wearing of veils, prohibitions on our driving and participation in public life, and to subservience to men backed up by law enforcement. I am a passionate feminist and I have long asserted that as long as any woman anywhere in the world is subject to such discrimination, no woman anywhere is truly safe.

So I challenged this friend. I told her I simply didn't believe it, and I asked her to please send me any evidence she had that Sharia law is being used in U.S. court cases.

Well, she didn't contact me, but her claim bothered me like a bad tooth. It wasn't long before I had to do what I've now spent 40 years doing: practicing some journalism to find out the truth.

Now, I don't claim to have done days of research or original interviews with sources of information. But I did go beyond TV reports on Fox News, and I did have a look at the web site of the leader of the anti-Sharia movement, David Yerushalmi of the Society of Americans for National Existence. You have to register to be a member to see the whole site, but even without that you can amuse yourself by reading Yerushalmi's attempt to prove he is not a racist and misogynist. He's had to defend himself against the charge because he wrote: "There is a reason the Founding Fathers did not give women or black slaves the vote." 

He insists he is only asking the question, why? To wit, if the founders were such great men, revered to this day, why would they take such a position? He says he knows how people like me, whom he immediately labels as "fellow travelers" will answer. He says I believe that the reason is that American was founded on evil. Not!

 If I needed immediate proof that Yershalmi exists in a paranoid world of his own making, that's it. Apparently he never, for example, read the letters from Abigail Adams to John Adams while he was at the constitutional convention. John made it clear in answering his wife's plea not to forget the women, that the men there saw no reason to give up their power over women and property. But they founded  a country on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They were imperfect products of the times they lived in, and it would take and did take centuries and many generations to change the status of women and blacks in the U.S., and will probably take many more before women have equal rights everywhere.

But I digress. So what did I find when I looked for evidence that Sharia law was undermining American law, particularly in ways that might erode the civil rights of women and others?

I found lots of discussion of a Florida case involving a lawsuit against a mosque and control of $2.2 million. Several men who said they were improperly ousted as trustees of the mosque sought an arbitration decision from an Islamic scholar. The mosque itself then challenged this use of Sharia law in a Florida court. Major threat? I don't think so. And, I learned, in cases involving Orthodox Jews in dispute with each other, it is not uncommon for U.S. judges to refer to Judaic law.

I found another case about guiding Muslim investors toward investments that are ethical under Sharia law. The Thomas More Law Center had mounted a lawsuit with--yes, he turns up again--co-counsel David Yerushalmi against the U.S. government's bailout of giant insurance and investment corporation AIG. Some of the bailout money was used for two AIG subsidiaries that practice Sharia-compliant financing.

Sharia-compliant investing is another flavor of social investing, the widespread practice of investing according to beliefs beyond the supremacy of the bottom line. Some people won't invest in companies in the tobacco or weapons businesses.  Sharia investing guidelines include prohibitions against charging interest (who knew that?) and I assume would also counsel against buying into companies that make alcoholic beverages, for example. AIG was simply going after Islamic investors, not forcing anyone to do anything.

No surprise, the court ruled against the claim that the bailout of AIG was unconstitutional, finding there was no evidence of religious indoctrination.

That didn't stop the Law Center from putting out this headline:
Sharia Law Gains Foothold in US--Federal Judge Upholds Government Funding of Islam
So what's going on? Why was my friend so concerned about the threat of Sharia Law? Why are so many state governments convinced there is a threat that they are working on--and passing-- legislation to outlaw the use of Sharia law in the U.S.?

You can find the answers here, in the report "Fear, Inc.," published last August by the Center for American Progress." This report pins responsibility on "a small group of conservative foundations and wealthy donors (who) are the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America, supporting a central nervous system consisting of a clutch of misinformation experts." One of the five, of course, is David Yerushalm.

It goes on to describe "a well-developed right-wing media echo chamber" that amplifies this small group. It consists of  "a loosely  aligned, ideologically-akin group of right-wing blogs, magazines, radio stations, newspapers, and television news shows," most prominently Fox.

I never ascribe motives to people I have never met nor thoroughly investigated. But there's no doubt about the impact of their misinformation activities. Their fear-mongering clearly has the effect of scaring a significant number of Americans into supporting and therefore justifying our monster-sized military, our continued role as the world's largest arms dealer, our continual sabre-rattling, our continual wars. And all of that is in service of maintaining the power status quo in Washington and the world that ensures that the 1% get richer and richer while the rest of us argue about and tremble at overblown threats.