In recent years the New York Times has published more than its share of slippery apologias for Islam, but the op-ed it ran on September 2 in defense of sharia law was not only slippery but curiously feeble as well. Eliyahu Stern, an assistant professor of religious studies and history at Yale, harshly criticized the attempts currently underway in over a dozen U.S. states to pass legislation prohibiting the introduction in those jurisdictions of sharia courts. “Some of these efforts,” Stern lamented, “would curtail Muslims from settling disputes over dietary laws and marriage through religious arbitration….”
What to say about this? First, let’s be clear that even a sharia court whose authority was strictly confined to dietary and marital questions would be a matter for concern. Take marriage, for example. Under sharia, marriage is a very lopsided affair, rights-wise. A man can divorce his wife at will — all it takes is saying the words. (One sharia judge recently ruled that a brief text message from husband to wife is sufficient to end a marriage.) By contrast, a woman who wishes to split from her husband must submit to a lengthy and often very expensive process of litigation that may very well end with her being turned down and forced to return home. Under sharia, she has no automatic right to a divorce. (Indeed, under sharia she hardly has any right to anything.)
That said, however, to pretend that sharia law is concerned only with such relatively innocuous matters as dietary laws and marital quarrels is disingenuous in the extreme. Yes, some of those who are trying to introduce sharia courts in the U.S. indeed insist that they wish only to employ sharia to resolve disagreements in these and other harmless-sounding areas. But don’t fool yourself — once the door is open, the sky’s the limit. The whole premise of sharia, after all, is that it applies to everything in life — not just food and domestic quarrels. The notion of separating the state from religion is utterly alien to the spirit and the letter of sharia, which, as most readers of this site are already well aware, prescribes the death penalty for apostates, homosexuals, and adulteresses — and that’s just for starters.
Just take a glance at these excerpts from the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, ratified in 1990 by representatives of most of the world’s Muslim nations. They make it clear that, in Islam, sharia is all — its authority is universal and eternal, and it trumps any non-Islamic notion of human rights:
- Safety from bodily harm is a guaranteed right. It is the duty of the state to safeguard it, and it is prohibited to breach it without a Shari’ah-prescribed reason.
- Every man shall have the right, within the framework of the Shari’ah, to free movement….
- Everyone shall have the right to enjoy the fruits of his scientific, literary, artistic or technical labour of which he is the author; and he shall have the right to the protection of his moral and material interests stemming therefrom, provided it is not contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.
- There shall be no crime or punishment except as provided for in the Shari’ah.
- Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.
- All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah.
- The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration.
The Cairo Declaration, it should be noted, was a response to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Muslim countries rejected because it was inconsistent with sharia law. If Muslim leaders acknowledge that sharia is incompatible with Western concepts of human rights, why can’t Professor Stern acknowledge it, too?
Anti-sharia laws, claimed Stern, would “stigmatiz[e] Islamic life.” No, they would recognize the reality of sharia law. Stern dismissed Newt Gingrich’s description of sharia as “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States,” claiming that “[t]he crusade against Shariah undermines American democracy, ignores our country’s successful history of religious tolerance and assimilation, and creates a dangerous divide between America and its fastest-growing religious minority.” But how does a crusade against a blindingly un-democratic system of law undermine democracy? How can banning a law built on intolerance and religious separatism constitute a blow to tolerance and assimilation? One object of sharia is to reinforce the “divide” between Muslims and infidels — how would prohibiting it create “a dangerous divide”? Every one of Stern’s arguments is precisely 180 degrees away from the truth.
If Stern had wanted to make a serious case that concern about the introduction of sharia in the United States is without foundation, the natural approach would have been to set out to demonstrate that sharia law is nothing to worry about. But, apparently recognizing that sharia is, in fact, very worrisome indeed, Stern took a different, and familiar, tack: He contended that to be concerned about sharia is, quite simply, to be a bigot. “The suggestion that Shariah threatens American security,” he wrote, “is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusation, in 19th-century Europe, that Jewish religious law was seditious. In 1807, Napoleon convened an assembly of rabbinic authorities to address the question of whether Jewish law prevented Jews from being loyal citizens of the republic. (They said that it did not.)” Stern proceeded to go on at length about the history of nineteenth-century European concern about Jewish law — all of which was utterly irrelevant to the issue at hand. It seemed obvious that Stern was focusing on this history because he knew that if he had, instead, taken an honest look at sharia law, he would have defeated his own case.