University of Windsor (Canada) law professor Julie MacFarlane has published a survey of 200 North American Muslims on the subject of Sharia Law, the Islamic law system that, in varying degrees of severity, is part of most Islamic countries. Three-quarters of the survey participants live in the United States, with the rest residing in Canada. There was no difference in responses based on nation of residence.
Imposition of Sharia Law in the U.S. and Canada is the anti-Muslim scare tactic being pursued by the right wing. Oklahoma, Tennessee and Louisiana passed laws or referendums banning state judges from considering Sharia or any other foreign law in making rulings, and over 20 other states have debated such laws. New Gingrich wants a Federal law to ban Sharia and Rick Santorum called Sharia an “existential threat” to America.
The right wing plays up the stories from the severest Sharia countries: women being stoned to death for adultery, thieves having hands chopped off, executions by decapitation (shades of the guillotine!), women being attacked for going to school or driving or showing a quarter inch of skin. They ignore the majority of laws covered under Sharia, many of which resemble Jewish laws (no pork) or Mormonism (no alcohol) to make Sharia scarier than it actually is, when applied in more moderate countries or limited to specific areas of life, like inheritance.
MacFarlane has stressed that the study should not be used to generalize about all American Muslims, but offers an insight into Muslim attitudes. The survey, published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, interviewed 101 Muslim men and women, 41 imams and 70 Muslim community leaders about their use of Islamic law in everyday life.
The study was inspired by a 2003 case in Toronto, where a small group of Muslims petitioned for equal treatment in family court cases. Toronto has separate “family tribunals” for Catholics and Jews to hear family law issues. Islam has a very complex set of inheritance laws, which are very different from the civil laws of both America and Canada and may have prompted the request. The request was denied. It set off protests, not just in Canada but in London, Vienna and Paris, with protesters insisting such a tribunal violated the principle of separation of church and state. The contradiction of that, in a city which has two religion-based family law tribunals, was lost on everyone. In America, the right wing has warned of “creeping Sharia” and claims that Muslims want to infiltrate our court system and replace our constitutional and common law with Sharia. Not a small feat for less than 1% of our population to pull off.
When the survey asked if American courts should apply Islamic law to non-Muslims, everyone said “no.” Three imams thought it would be a good idea to have a parallel family law court to handle Muslim family issues, but the rest of the imams are perfectly
Let’s get our comparisons in a row here. Civil law says that two people, once married legally in any state, can get a divorce. Catholic law says they can only divorce if they get a dispensation for a divorce from the Church. A Catholic can choose to obey church law and not obtain a divorce, or choose to follow civil law and get the divorce. There is a parallel to Sharia law here. Under Sharia, a couple marries within their faith and divorces within their faith. To have a legal marriage and divorce, they must do so with the civil authorities. Separate ceremonies, separate contracts. Gee, great idea. The survey participants believe that the two, religious marriage and civil marriage, should be separate, just the way Catholics do it in Monaco. We should not have blurred the line between them and allowed clergymen to certify civil marriage licenses.
MacFarlane wrote, “For most American Muslims, Sharia represents a private system of morality and identity, primarily focused on marriage and divorce rituals.” There is one aspect of Sharia law that might appeal to some of the retro-Mormons out there. On rare occasion, an imam will permit the use of an Islamic marriage contract, a nikah, to take additional wives. No civil laws are broken by this practice, while the Sharia law which encourages multiple wives is satisfied.
MacFarlane said that her sampling was not representative of the Muslim community as a whole. Over 70% of the participants were immigrants and almost half had college degrees. Half were South Asian, 30% Middle Eastern descent, 10% African descent and 10% Caucasian converts and African Americans (African-Americans make up around 35% of all American Muslims.) A follow-up survey would be welcomed, one more closely paralleling the demographics of Muslims in America. It would also be interesting to see a similar survey of Jews and Catholics, both of whom have legal systems within their faiths that are different from the civil laws of our country.
The publication of MacFarlane’s study comes at a very important time in the debate over Sharia. In the most extreme cases, Islam allows the murder of a female family member who “dishonors” her family in some way. It is a cultural aspect of Islam that has been exploited in warfare between Muslims and non-Muslims as in Bosnia and the Sudan. Rape becomes a weapon that is equal to killing the woman, because she will either take her own life or be killed by her male family members.
In Kingston, Ontario, three members of an Afghan family were found guilt of murder in the deaths of three teenage sisters and their step-mother. The family considered them honor killings because the girls were living as Canadians and not adhering to their father’s strict rules of Islamic life. All four were drowned and their bodies placed in two separate vehicles which were then placed in canals to fact accidents. Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya and their son Hamed were each found guilty of four counts of first-degree (premeditated) murder with each count carrying a no-parole 25-year sentence. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson denounced honor killings as “barbaric and unacceptable in Canada.” American courts have come to the same conclusion.
We have had Muslims in America from the very beginning. The percentage has grown in recent years because of wars in their homelands, something that is very common with any immigrant group. But in two centuries, only rarely has anyone made an issue of the imposition of anyone’s religious laws on our civil laws. It was never something suggested by the members of a faith, but a scare tactic used by others, as it was with the non-issue of John Kennedy’s Catholicism.
There is another aspect of Sharia Law that MacFarlane didn’t ask about – how many of those immigrants actually came to North America to escape countries with severe Sharia? There is more to the First Amendment than just being able to practice one’s faith. It is also a guarantee that the state will not impose a religion or a form of a religion that is in violation of one’s personal beliefs. My mother’s Bavarian ancestors were Catholics who came here to escape a state-imposed Protestantism. My paternal grandmother came her to escape a country where Catholic canon law dictated civil law and forbid her divorce from the husband who abandoned her. The Irish came here because being Catholic barred them from civil rights including jobs and educational opportunities in a Protestant country. My husband’s French Canadian parents came here for the same reason. Most Americans get that whole First Amendment thing backwards. Freedom FROM state religion comes before freedom OF religion in the First Amendment.