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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.”
In other instances, furor over Islamization has been set off by trivial and harmless measures that infringe on no one’s rights, such the installation on a few college campuses of foot baths for Muslim students to use for ritual ablutions. Such provisions are no different in principle from accommodations that benefit other religious groups, such as kosher menus in student dining halls.
Indeed, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment specialist, points out that many current disputes about public accommodation of Islamic beliefs and practices, or enforcement of private contracts and arbitrations based on Islamic law, are not particularly novel. “They’re not some special new monkey wrench that Muslims are throwing into our legal system,” he wrote on his Volokh Conspiracy blog on March 25. “Christians, Jews, and others have routinely raised such issues before, and continue to do so today.” In most such cases—for instance, when Catholic social service agencies ask to be exempted from state laws that prohibit discriminating against same-sex couples in adoption placements—conservatives are found on the side of more religious accommodation.
Such accommodations, large and small, are very much a part of American life. While single-sex hours at a few municipal swimming pools for the benefit of Muslims who observe traditional rules of modesty have raised hackles, similar provisions have been made for Orthodox Jews. In many areas with large Jewish communities, push-button-controlled traffic lights at crosswalks switch to automatic control on the Sabbath, when the Orthodox are not allowed to operate electrical devices.
Nor is there anything new about conflicts and controversies over religion and state. In upstate New York in the 1980s, parents in an Orthodox Jewish enclave sued the public school board because of their objections to female drivers on school buses carrying boys; when the suit was rejected, they created their own school district, which was green-lit by the state legislature but later blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court as overtly religious in nature. In some religious communities that expect all interpersonal disputes to be handled by spiritual elders—Jehovah’s Witnesses, ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Amish—there have been serious concerns about cover-ups of criminal acts such as child sexual abuse, because of traditional pressure to not report such crimes to the secular authorities.
How do critics of “Islamization” deal with these parallels? Last December, a Jewish reader on the website of Middle East Forum Director Daniel Pipes pointed out that much-reviled proposals to allow Muslims to voluntarily settle domestic relations cases and financial disputes in Shariah courts are analogous to existing Jewish religious courts or within-community conflict resolutions among Mormons or the Amish. Pipes responded: “Jews and Amish do not try to take over the United States; Islamists do.” Thus, all Muslims who ask for modest and standard accommodations for their religious values are equated with “Islamists” who seek to take over America, and any concessions to such requests are seen as “the camel’s nose under the tent”—the first step to public floggings, stonings, and beheadings.
Any accommodation of faith-based beliefs that violates fundamental liberties and individual rights should be firmly rejected, whether it’s the acceptance of religiously sanctioned wife beating or the recent suggestion by Washburn University law professor Liaqat Ali Khan that “desecrations of the Qur’an” should be outlawed because “given the presence of a growing population of American Muslims, Qur’an burning threatens domestic peace.” But the anti-Islamic backlash threatens essential rights too. Efforts to block the construction of mosques using government muscle are the most obvious example. The recent Shariah bans could prevent American courts from honoring and enforcing private contracts and agreements based on Islamic religious law, and perhaps even from recognizing the validity of marriages performed by Islamic courts abroad.
The Myth of the Muslim Monolith