On Wednesday, July 15, Representative Diane Black (R-TN) introduced a bill to ban the use of foreign law in federal courts. While devoid of language targeting a specific group of people, House Resolution 3052 is premised on the same notion that led to the passage of similar bills in ten states across the country: Muslims are aiming to assert the supremacy of Sharia, or Islamic law, over the Constitution.
This proposed federal legislation, like its counterparts on the state level, is another manifestation of the organized efforts to spread fear of Muslims that masquerade as campaigns to protect American values. The bill offers a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, and risks the further stigmatization of a minority group that is already singled out.
Rooted in a larger campaign to generate fear about Muslims
This bill is by no means the first of its kind. Over half of U.S. states have seen bills against “foreign law” make their way to Senate and House floors. All were based on model legislation authored by David Yerushalmi, the attorney for Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, the duo behind the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy and the “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas.
As the Center for New Community has noted, Black co-sponsored a version of Yerushalmi’s bill in Tennessee in 2010 when she was a state senator. Back then, like today, she warned about the threat of Sharia law and the need for this legislation to prevent its infiltration. In a press release announcing her sponsorship of the bill, she points to Sharia’s danger by linking to an unreliable poll on American Muslim public opinion by the Center for Security Policy, a Washington, DC think tank headed by Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan official whose conspiracy theories about Muslims include tales of Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the American government.
This bill is just one node in a larger web of activities aimed at sowing distrust of Muslims. This small network of individuals, which includes Yerushalmi, Spencer, Geller, and Gaffney, has become increasingly organized and effective since 2010, commenting on prime-time cable shows, rubbing elbows with presidential candidates, and galvanizing ordinary citizens to oppose the construction of Islamic institutions.
Is sharia actually a threat?
This legislation attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist. As the American Civil Liberties Union explains in their report, “Nothing to Fear: Debunking the Mythical ‘Sharia Threat’ to Our Judicial System”:
“There is no evidence that Islamic law is encroaching on our courts. On the contrary, the court cases cited by anti-Muslim groups as purportedly illustrative of this problem actually show the opposite: Courts treat lawsuits that are brought by Muslims or that address the Islamic faith in the same way that they deal with similar claims brought by people of other faiths or that involve no religion at all. These cases also show that sufficient protections already exist in our legal system to ensure that courts do not become impermissibly entangled with religion or improperly consider, defer to, or apply religious law where it would violate basic principles of U.S. or state public policy.”
The conservative National Review made a similar point. Matthew Franck, a legal analyst at the magazine wrote:
“Thirty-five years’ worth of American law, and we have a whopping seven cases in which some ‘foreign law’ was honored (not even Sharia in every case), and not enough information even to tell if something truly unjust happened in any of the seven. In the other thirteen cases, Sharia-law principles were rejected either at trial or on appeal.”
As the Center for American Progress has noted, proponents of anti-Sharia laws most often rely on two specific cases, which, in the end, don’t even bolster their argument. In New Jersey, a judge denied a Moroccan woman’s request for a restraining order against her husband on the basis of the view that under Islamic law there is no concept of sexual assault within marriage. An appeals court swiftly reversed that ruling, “firmly rejecting the defendant’s reliance on religious beliefs as a justification for his acts.” The second case involved an Arizona man who murdered his daughter because she was living with a man who was not her husband. While the crime was represented by many as an “honor killing,” the man himself did not refer to it that way, and he was found guilty and sentenced to nearly 35 years in prison.
Supporters of anti-Sharia legislation, while quick to suggest that these cases reveal the threat posed by Sharia, do not mention the outcome of these cases, in which the Constitution took precedence.
Anti-Sharia bills put undue suspicion on Muslims
Bills like the one sponsored by Black don’t just raise the specter of sharia — a term that has become a scare-word, and that few can likely even define — but also amplify fears about Muslims as a group. These fears, often based on unfounded beliefs and inaccurate information, suggest that there is a force so nefarious that government action — through legislation or other policies — is necessary to thwart impending disaster.
In addition to anti-Sharia bills, other state and federal measures have been enacted that target Muslims or single them out on the basis of their religious identity. The FBI has granted US immigration authorities the power to delay or deny citizenship for Muslim applicants who fit certain profiles; mosque construction projects across the country have come under increased scrutiny from local city councils; major presidential candidates have advocated restricting immigration from Muslim-majority countries; and law enforcement agencies have infiltrated and spied on Muslim-American communities, relying on suspicion, not evidence, to conduct extensive surveillance projects.
These policies did not result in increased safety, but rather isolated and stigmatized the American Muslim community and perpetuated the notion that religious profiling is acceptable and even necessary. This proposed foreign law bill will have the same effect.