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Some opposition to mosques surely stems from concerns about traffic and other land-use issues. But the activists’ denial of anti-Muslim animus is often belied by their own words. In New Jersey, Bridgewater Township recently moved to ban houses of worship from residential neighborhoods after a Muslim group announced plans to convert a vacant inn into a mosque and community center. (The ordinance is now being challenged in court.) Local Tea Party leader James Lefkowitz, who supports the ban, told the New Jersey Jewish News his objections were entirely about neighborhood impact: “The fact that the center would contain a Muslim, rather than Christian or Jewish, house of worship doesn’t trouble me at all.” Yet in the very same interview, Lefkowitz also stated that “certainly a Muslim mosque raises questions about where the money is coming from and the principals involved and any association with terrorism.” Ironically, it was Republicans who, 10 years ago, spearheaded a federal law prohibiting local governments from using zoning laws to impose an “undue burden,” especially in a targeted, discriminatory sense, on the exercise of religion.
The last year also has seen an explosion of bills to ban the use of Islamic religious law in state courts. In November a ballot initiative prohibiting courts from considering Shariah law or international law passed in Oklahoma. (The law has been stayed by a federal injunction pending a court challenge.) The Missouri House of Representatives approved a similar measure in April. Anti-Shariah bills—sometimes specifically singling out Islamic law, sometimes referring more broadly to international, foreign, or religious law—are pending in about a dozen other states.
The push for Shariah bans is puzzling, to say the least. Since Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and government establishment of religion is prohibited by the Constitution, a Shariah takeover in America is about as likely as a zombie apocalypse. Yet to proponents, this is a threat that must be stopped while there’s still time. A closer look at the purported evidence for “creeping Shariah,” however, shows a lot of skewed and garbled facts—and issues by no means unique to Muslims or Islam.
The most notorious example in the anti-Shariah brief was a 2010 New Jersey case in which a judge seemed to say that an American Muslim could rape his wife with impunity because his religion allowed it. The 18-year-old plaintiff, who had come to the U.S. from Morocco with her husband shortly after their arranged marriage, was seeking a permanent restraining order while filing for divorce. She testified that her husband had repeatedly assaulted her—claims corroborated by police photos of multiple bruises on her body—and forced her to have sex against her will. Family Court Judge Joseph Charles made a finding of domestic violence but denied the restraining order, dismissing the abuse as a “bad patch” in the marriage. As for the forced sex, the judge reasoned that, since the husband believed he was within his rights to demand sex from his wife, he lacked the intent to commit criminal sexual assault.
Outrageous? Yes. Shariah in action? Not exactly. Excusing illegal acts because they are sanctioned by a defendant’s culture or religion is a very bad idea for many reasons. It subverts equal justice, hinders the integration of immigrants, and perpetuates oppressive customs that many hope to escape. But the “cultural defense” in U.S. law goes back more than 20 years, and most controversies related to it have not involved Muslims. In 1989 a Chinese immigrant in New York City received five years’ probation for bludgeoning his unfaithful wife to death; the defense argued that he had been provoked by the extreme shame attached to cuckoldry in Chinese culture. The decision angered many people, especially advocates for battered women. But no one tried to depict it as a warning sign of the yellow peril.
Another minor cause célèbre in 2010 was the summer arrest of four Christian evangelists at the annual Arab festival in Dearborn, Michigan, for disturbing the peace, a story that spread through Christian and conservative blogs. The missionaries, it was reported, had committed no offense but speaking of their faith and handing out Christian literature, and were arrested in deference to the Shariah ban on preaching religions other than Islam. Republican politicians such as Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle sounded the alarm about Shariah law coming to Dearborn, which has a large Muslim population.
The real story was far more complicated. The evangelists, members of a ministry called Acts 17 Apologetics, were arrested based on a complaint from a Christian festival volunteer who claimed they had verbally harassed him and blocked his path. Two days later, they returned to hand out gospel booklets in the street outside the festival—mainly, as their own video of the incident makes clear, to test whether they would be stopped. They were approached by police, taken to a security booth, and advised that festival rules prohibited any handouts in that location.
The Dearborn Four were later acquitted on the breach of peace charge, and video footage strongly suggests the initial harassment complaint was trumped up. (Whatever verbal aggression occurred in the encounter came primarily from the volunteer himself.) The complaint may have arisen from a vendetta against a group that festival staffers saw as obnoxious troublemakers. An Acts 17 video from 2009, Sharia in America, shows three members of the group goading a man at an Arab festival booth in a debate on Islam and terrorism, ignoring his requests to stop filming him, and then getting into a spat with security.
But were the evangelists targeted for preaching the word of Christ to Muslims? The Baptist Press columnist Kelly Boggs, one of the commentators who made this charge, retracted it a week later after learning some additional facts—in particular, that several Christian ministries had booths at the festival where they freely interacted with visitors and gave out DVDs, pamphlets, and books, including the Gospels in Arabic. Acts 17 leader Nabeel Qureshi has acknowledged in an interview that “not all Christians ran into trouble,” only “those who were vocal” and who would not obey rules restricting the distribution of literature to certain locations. So much for the dramatic assertion in one of the group’s videos that “this is life in Dearborn if you’re a Christian.”
Qureshi and his friends have attracted little sympathy from the local Christian community. A 2009 letter co-signed by several ministers—not “Kumbaya”-singing liberal Christians but conservative evangelicals who stressed their own critical view of Islam—accused them of spreading blatant falsehoods about the situation in Dearborn, saying their aggressive conduct at the festival “brought shame to the name of Christ.”
Annoying though their antics may be, the Dearborn Four still have First Amendment rights that were very likely violated. But the real issue here is the practice of restricting freedom of speech at conventions, festivals, and other public events to designated “free speech zones.” It is not about “Shariah law” any more than the 2007 arrest of two Jews for Jesus members for handing out leaflets outside an Israel Day festival in Los Angeles was about covert rabbinical rule.
Shariah panic aside, there are real cultural conflicts involving the practice of Islamic beliefs in the United States. At the extreme, these tensions can escalate into severe and even deadly violence toward women who transgress traditional norms of behavior. Far more commonly, disputes have arisen over such minor yet momentarily divisive issues as cab drivers turning down passengers who are carrying alcoholic beverages or accompanied by service dogs. (In many such cases, the “Muslim” position is a fringe one within Islam. While Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol and strongly discouraged from keeping dogs as house pets, most Islamic authorities agree there is no prohibition on transporting either.)
So far the official responses to these disputes show no signs of a rush to either appeasement or persecution. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the only metropolitan area where taxi drivers’ denial of service to liquor-carrying passengers at the airport is a significant issue, the city responded with stiff penalties—a 30-day license suspension on the first offense, a two-year revocation on the second—for refusing a passenger for “unwarranted reasons.”