Sharia and the left: between fundamentalism and xenophobia?
Oklahoma's constitutional amendment that bars the state's judges form considering sharia law is heading to the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, after Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange ruled it unconstitutional, saying "the will of the ‘majority’ has on occasion conflicted with the constitutional rights of individuals." Oklahomans voted up the amendment last year by 70%, but Muneer Awad from the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a suit to keep it from going into effect. The district court found that the amendment amounted to an official disapproval of Islam by the state of Oklahoma, curtailing Muslims' political rights and violating the First Amendment. Oklahoma's Attorney General has appealed the decision. (KFOR, Oklahoma City, Sept. 9; WP, Sept. 8)
In the past year, similar anti-sharia measures have been passed or introduced in more than a dozen states. Louisiana, Arizona and Tennessee are among the states that have passed bills restricting judges from consulting sharia in their rulings, and Michigan is the most recent to introduce a similar bill. The controversy also reached New Jersey, when Republican Gov. Chris Christie was blasted for appointing a Muslim to the state Superior Court. Christie called a press conference where he blasted back: "The folks who criticize my appointment are ignorant. I nominated Sohail Mohammed because he’s a good lawyer and an outstanding human being." Christie praised Mohammed as "an extraordinary American" who helped build bridges between the Muslim American community and law enforcement agencies after 9-11.
Asked if he was concerned that Mohammed would bring sharia law to the bench, Christie bristled: "Sharia law has nothing to do with this at all. It's crazy! The guy's an American citizen who’s been admitted to practice law in New Jersey, swearing an oath to uphold the laws of New Jersey, the Constitution of the state of New Jersey and the Constitution of the United States of America…. This sharia law business is crap! It's just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies!"
Clearly highlighting the xenophobia behind these measures, most of them (including that in Oklahoma) also bar judges from considering international law—even though treaties are constitutionally the law of the land. The weekly Indian Country Today notes concerns that these measures could be used to bar judges from considering the customary or tribal law of Indian nations—which the US ostensibly has a sovereign-to-sovereign relationship with.
The National Native American Bar Association (NNABA)...is so concerned that the ban on Sharia and international law in state courts could lead to the prohibition of states' consideration of tribal law that it passed a resolution in April opposing any such law. Amidst a flurry of "whereas" clauses, the resolution says, "NNABA hereby denounces any state law or effort that seeks or operates to outlaw a state court's consideration of tribal law, or to forbid a state court from honoring the laws or decisions of other states in which courts consider tribal law."
We share this concern, and we applaud Judge Miles-LaGrange's decision. But we have to point out some strange contradictions behind the politics of this question. For starters (and most obviously), some of the most vociferous anti-sharia voices in the US openly embrace biblical law—and the prescriptions in Leviticus (e.g. stoning homosexuals to death) are as hideous as the worst that the most reactionary interpretation of sharia under the Taliban has to offer. In vivid contrast, struggles against the real (not imaginary) imposition of sharia over society are being waged by progressive secularists in the Islamic world. This paradoxical juxtaposition causes progressives both in the US and the Muslim world to become confused on the question. We've already noted the American left's paradoxical flirtation with reactionary political Islam—e.g. in its shameless cheerleading for the Iraqi "insurgents" and Iran's ayatollah state. This is an absurd betrayal of solidarity.
Some secularists in the Muslim world are in danger of making the equal and opposite error of blocking with the reactionary right in the West against reactionary political Islam. We were recently dismayed to find that Iranian feminist Azar Majedi—who opposes the oppression of women in the ayatollah state while also opposing US intervention—was interviewed by the right-wing Islamophobic FrontPageMag. To her credit, she makes clear—towards the end—that she rejects her interviewer's enthusiasm for war against her country. But she appears to have her own page on IslamWatch, a website of "Muslim apostates" that promotes FrontPageMag, the paranoid JihadWatch and the problematic Phyllis Chesler. Is she aware of this? Has she protested it? Is she, if unwittingly, loaning propaganda to the xenophobic and war-monger right?
Another Iranian feminist, Maryam Namazie, has warned against the spread of political Islam to Europe, with reactionary interpretations of sharia being imposed in Musilm communities. She has launched a One Law for All Campaign to advocate for a secular Europe. But—to her great credit—she has just released a report entitled "Enemies Not Allies," warning secular progressives against blocking with the right. This is noted approvingly by the progressive blog Bartholomew's Notes on Religion—and with outrage by FrontPageMag, in a screed dubbed "When Marxist Anti-Semitic 'Anti-Jihadists' Attack." Note the scare quotes around "anti-jihadists," implying that she really isn't. And "Anti-Semitism"? We are told that Namazie has "attacked Israel and spread Palestinian jihad propaganda." Yet the link for this quote goes to a page on Namazie's blog entitled "Stop the Genocide Perpetrated by the Israeli ِArmy against the Civilians of Gaza." It contains not a word of "jihad propaganda" (unless you think protesting Israel's war crimes is "jihad propaganda"), and in fact decries "the religious Right-wing on both sides of the conflict." So much for that red herring.
And another Iranian feminist, Shirin Ebadi, has also forthrightly rejected US intervention—a good inoculation against her exploitation by the right. Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi likewise remains intransigently anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist. Canada's Irshad Manji, the self-declared "Musilm Refusenik," has dangerously equivocated. Most disappointingly, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born opponent of political Islam, has completely capitulated—after being forced by threats to leave Holland, she crossed the Atlantic to take a position with the neocon American Enterprise Institute.
It is critical to understand that those fighting efforts to enshrine sharia in the Iraqi constitution—and now the Egyptian constitution—and those fighting efforts to ban sharia in the US are fundamentally on the same side. They are both defending secularism, equal rights and separation of church and state.
The question gets a bit more complicated in moves we have seen by authorities in Canada and in Britain to officially embrace sharia, potentially creating Maryam Namazie's feared dual-law system. Cases such as the supposed "honor killing" in Buffalo, NY, three years ago, when a Muslim businessman beheaded his wife, fuel such fears (although such prescriptions are only called for in the most extreme interpretations of sharia, and would presumably never be embraced by authorities in the West). Azar Majedi is among those who support the European initiatives to ban face veils (although not, that we have heard, the Swiss measure to ban minarets), calling the veil "a symbol of women's subjugation."
Those who fear that stateside anti-sharia measures will be a precedent for attacking the cultural rights of Native Americans should also recall that in the Muslim world, political Islam violates the rights of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. As we pointed out in our commentary on the Geronimo-bin Laden controversy, the fundamentalist jihadis, with their ideology (and often their foot-soldiers) imported from Saudi Arabia, are committing acts of brutal cleansing against indigenous Somalis, against Yazidis in Iraq, against the Fur in Sudan, against Berbers in Algeria, against Kuchi nomads in Afghanistan—against indigenous, land-rooted peoples throughout the greater Middle East.
The anti-sharia measures in state constitutions in the US are about the imposition of an Anglo monoculture, with political Christianity in the wings. Measures that officially enshrine sharia in national constitutions in the Muslim world are about the imposition of an Islamic monoculture and the rule of political Islam. Failure to grasp this plays into a global divide-and-conquer trip that warms the hearts of fundamentalists and reactionaries East and West.