“Good intentions are no substitute for knowing how a buzz saw works.” –Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love.
A small incident in an obscure court case in Minnesota shows why we need to understand properly the debate over Islam, Islamism, and Islamophobia.
First, let me convey the basic facts as laid out in an article in the local newspaper. A woman named Amina Farah Ali, originally from Somalia, was on trial (she was later convicted) for raising money for a radical Islamist terrorist group, al-Shabaab. This group has committed hundreds of murders, setting off a war that has led to starvation in Somalia and then blocking relief supplies from Western agencies.
Ali refused to stand when the judge entered the courtroom. The judge found her guilty of contempt and sentenced her to 100 days in jail. Ali’s lawyer appealed and the higher court found that Ali’s refusal “was rooted in her sincerely held religious beliefs” and thus the judge’s decision had interfered with “the free exercise of religion.” According to the law, the higher court concluded, religious beliefs can only be overridden if there is a “compelling reason” to do so.
I want to focus on Ali’s precise reasoning as accepted by the U.S. judicial system. Ali said that she refused to stand because of her interpretation of Islamic teachings. Why? Because, as the newspaper article recounted, “The Prophet Muhammad once told a group of followers they didn’t have to honor him by standing. She said that if she didn’t have to rise for the founder of her religion, she didn’t have to rise for anybody.”
Every other Muslim in the courtroom, however, disagreed with her on what Islam requires of them. They stood up. It also appears that some Muslim clerics later advised her to stand. The judge noted that there was no discrimination against Muslims involved in the rule because everyone in a courtroom must stand. Even her own lawyer, who supported Ali’s action, admitted, “There’s just no reasonable way that [the judge] could have order in the court unless she gives up her religious beliefs.” But obviously this lawyer doesn’t care about the effective functioning of a court. So he chooses her religious belief over the importance of maintaining order in a court and equal treatment for all citizens.
Yet in this case we are not even dealing with Muslim religious tenets. This decision basically say that anyone can make up any religious belief and if deemed sincere can do whatever they want.
For example, in the Book of Esther it says that Mordechai refused to bow to the king’s prime minister. Any Jew or Christian could claim that this empowered—indeed obligated–him not to stand up in court to a judge since one bows only before God.
Ali, then, is allowed to create her very own religion. In fact, one could persuasively argue that normative Islam requires religious decisions to be made by qualified clerics and, though this is somewhat disputed, the gates of ijtihad, that is the right of personal interpretation even by clerics, was closed centuries ago. Ali is thus arguably ignoring Islamic law. The same point applies, for example, to Muslim taxi drivers who refuse to carry blind passengers with seeing eye dogs or people carrying alcohol—thus violating their licenses—or to Muslim store clerks who claim that Islam requires them to refuse to handle non-hallal foods in a supermarket.
This is astonishing. As questionable as it is to bend the rules of laws applying to others for the sake of genuine normative Islamic observance, the situation has gone even further: a Muslim can make up new religious obligations and demand that a non-Muslim society accepts them!
In some ways, that’s what Islamism is, a radical interpretation of Islam as a revolutionary political movement which in 2012 must seize state power wherever possible. Can the Islamists cite holy texts and great theologians to justify their actions? Yes. But why should Western democratic states accept this interpretation as valid for their own laws and societies? Why should they have the slightest sympathy or rationalization for a doctrine explicitly intended to destroy them at the same time refusing to teach their own soldiers and counter-terrorist agencies this fact?
The supposed escape clause in the U.S. court system is the “compelling reason” phrase. There’s a “compelling reason” to put someone in jail for trying to blow people up even if the perpetrator claims that as a religious obligation.
Yet what is that appeals’ court ruling doing in reality?
–According to this appeals’ court ruling, any religious belief held by a single person, even if no co-religionist accepted it, can be used to ignore a law or regulation, at least one considered by a judge to be below a certain level of importance for public interests to override it! That’s not religious freedom, that’s anarchy.
–Once Ali has the right not to stand up in court there’s pressure on other Muslims to become more hardline and imaginative in their interpretations. This is an advantage of radical Islamism which constantly presents itself as the proper level of piety. Countering this, of course, is the power of assimilation to American values, fear of punishment, and concern that excessive militancy will turn off potential supporters. But if U.S. courts agree that to dress modestly requires all-encompassing, so-called Islamic garb doesn’t that help brand any Muslim who doesn’t comply as impious or worse?
–When does the “compelling reason” factor kick in and will it be pushed continually back ? In several European counties, polygamy is now officially recognized and multiple wives draw welfare payments. Apparently, it isn’t “compelling” enough to stop. Can Muslim women demand to have drivers’ licenses that don’t show their faces? All it takes is one judge to make fewer and fewer laws involve a “compelling reason” to be enforced.
–If Muslims are told that the state accepts the argument that Islamic law is recognized as superior to state law (something that isn’t even done in many Muslim-majority counties!) they are being taught to be political Islamists. Why then doesn’t murdering relatives for “family honor”–another interpretation of normative Islam–or killing a Muslim who converts to Christianity–which is explicitly in the texts–a duty superior to law?
–When, as is happening, an Islamic school financed with taxpayer money–itself something rather shocking in the American context–teaches children that Christians and Jews are inferior people who should be ruled by an Islamic government implementing Sharia law does this require a “compelling” reason to take away their funds and ability to grant recognized diplomas despite that being their sincere religious belief?
Again, every Muslim has the right to equal treatment with others, not to be denied for example a job or other benefits because of his religious identity. By this same standard, Catholic institutions cannot be forced to offer birth control or abortion, though Catholic individuals can be forced to pay income taxes that in part might go for such things, just as Muslims and Jews must pay taxes that might end up buying ham for soldiers to eat (though only if those individuals choose to eat it!).
But that doesn’t mean someone has the right to get a job which he partly refuses to perform based on the real or alleged consequences of that religious identity, just as radio stations should not be forced to hire stutterers as announcers or religious institutions required to hire atheists as ministers.
Taxi drivers who demand the right to discriminate among which passengers they pick up should not be given licenses. People who refuse to ring up pork items in supermarkets should be fired as cashiers. (I faced this issue personally when I was putting myself through college and worked at a supermarket.) The same applies also to clothing requirements involved in some kinds of employment. Of course, many Muslims have taken such jobs because they know that as long as they don’t drink the alcohol or eat the pork they are not breaking actual religious commandments. They define those tasks as not being in contradiction to their religious beliefs and thus there is no problem.
The contradiction can be expressed simply: what gives way, society as a whole or an individual who demands the society be reorganized to suit his personal views?
Fair treatment does not mean special privileges. That means people don’t get special paid leave for religious pilgrimages on demand (but should be able to use appropriate vacation and leave time for such purposes); the state doesn’t pay to build religious facilities (where the individual has freedom to go anywhere else he wants, i.e., not in a prison); people have no right to hold a job and not fulfill the requirements (since the individual could take other jobs); and there’s no religious right to reject the rules of democratic state institutions.
It is surprising how little this debate has been conducted in Western societies, where the cry of “Islamophobia” stifles honest discussion. Instead, what has resulted is confusion in which people have been given some very dangerous notions. One of the most chilling things I’ve seen in this regard was a television interview with three very bright young Muslim lawyers in Canada who sincerely and articulately asserted, in the Mark Steyn case, that they had a legal right to prevent the publication of any article they didn’t like because it offended them. Apparently, nothing they had been taught in the most distinguished law schools made them think otherwise. How can democracy flourish under such conditions?