The New Republic's Sharia Whitewash

Analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht, in a recent New Republic essay, condemned those who “demonized” Sharia -- Islamic law -- despite conceding that the application of what he refers to deferentially as Islam’s “Holy Law”:

... can be ugly, not least for women. Westerners, especially Europeans, are quite right to be outraged by the importation of Sharia practices to their shores. And Westerners should cast a very dim eye on any financial institution that sets up Sharia-compliant offices that could, if left unchecked, discreetly normalize anti-Semitic practices in big global institutions. ... [E]ven some Muslim theologians have seen the strain of despotism in Islamic history as being related to the static and authoritarian nature of Islamic legal practice.

Notwithstanding these concessions, Gerecht ridiculed former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s contention during a widely publicized July 2010 American Enterprise Institute speech that the imposition of Islamic law poses an existential threat to freedoms uniquely conceived and practiced in the West. With a glib utterance ("This is hardly the place for a disquisition on Sharia, or how it’s evolved over the centuries”), Gerecht sidestepped his own manifestly inadequate understanding of Sharia and the living consequences of its historical application across space and time. He then lambasted Gingrich -- whom Gerecht claimed to have “long admired” -- as representing the misguided conservatives whose “blanket demonization of the Holy Lawmight:

... lead one to view Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite thinker in the world, and one who tried desperately and selflessly to keep his country from descending into internecine savagery, as a bigot and a terrorist engine. The same would be true for the late Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the spiritual father of Iran’s Green Movement.

Gerecht’s romantic, unqualified assertions regarding the Shiite Ayatollahs Sistani and Montazeri illustrate a phenomenon described appositely 25 years ago by renowned Dutch Islamologist Johannes J.G. Jansen. Professor Jansen’s seminal analysis of the Egyptian Islamic milieu before and after Anwar Sadat’s October 1981 assassination -- which included a carefully annotated translation of the jihadist manifesto The Neglected Duty -- opens with this observation germane to Reuel Gerecht, and his ilk:

Western journalists or scholars picture Islam as a system that is open-minded, liberal, vague, and humanist as their own Western systems ... Western writers who give accounts of Islam to a Western public often do not stress those elements in Islam that would be offensive or nonsense in the eyes of their Western readers. They rather see it as their duty to present Islam in as acceptable a light as possible to the West ... In general, they take on the role of counsel for the defense.

The apologetic mindset Professor Jansen described is epitomized by Gerecht’s bowdlerized lionization of the two irredentist Ayatollahs. Via deliberate omission, or unacceptable ignorance, Gerecht negates the living legacy of Shi’ite Islamic doctrine and its authentic, oppressive application in the Shiite communities of Iran and Iraq, particularly since the advent of the Safavid theocratic state at the very beginning of the 16th century.

The great Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher (d. 1921) -- a renowned Islamophile -- believed that Shi’ism manifested greater doctrinal intolerance toward non-Muslims, compared to Sunni Islam. Goldziher observed:

On examining the legal documents, we find that the Shi’i legal position toward other faiths is much harsher and stiffer than that taken by Sunni Muslims. Their law reveals a heightened intolerance to people of other beliefs ... Of the severe rule in the Qur’an (9:28) that “unbelievers are unclean”, Sunni Islam has accepted an interpretation that is as good as a repeal. Shi’i law, on the other hand, has maintained the literal sense of the rule; it declares the bodily substance of the unbeliever to be ritually unclean, and lists the touching of an unbeliever among the ten things that produce najasa [najis], ritual impurity.

Iran’s Safavid rulers, at the outset of the 16th century, formally established Shi’a Islam as the state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. The profound influence of the Shi’ite clerical elite continued for almost four centuries (although interrupted between 1722-1795 during a period of Afghan invasion and internecine struggle) through the later Qajar period (1795-1925), as characterized by the Persianophilic scholar E.G. Browne:

The Mujtahids and Mulla are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics.

These Shi’ite clerics emphasized the notion of the ritual uncleanliness (najis) of Jews in particular, but also Christians, Zoroastrians, and others as the cornerstone of inter-confessional relationships toward non-Muslims.

The writings and career of Mohammad Baqer Majlisi elucidate the imposition of Shiite dhimmitude in Iran. Majlisi (d. 1699), the highest institutionalized clerical officer under both Shah Sulayman (1666-1694) and Shah Husayn (1694-1722), was perhaps the most influential cleric of the Safavid Shiite theocracy in Persia. Indeed, for a decade at the end of the 17th century al-Majlisi functioned as the de facto ruler of Iran -- the Ayatollah Khomeini of his era. By design, he wrote many works in Persian to disseminate key aspects of the Shi’a ethos among ordinary persons. His Persian treatise Lightning Bolts Against the Jews, despite its title, was actually an overall guideline to anti-dhimmi regulations for all non-Muslims within the Shi’ite theocracy. Al-Majlisi, in this treatise, describes the standard humiliating requisites for non-Muslims living under the Shari’a -- first and foremost, the blood ransom jizya, or poll-tax, based on Koran 9:29. He then enumerates six other restrictions relating to worship, housing, dress, transportation, and weapons (specifically, i.e., to render the dhimmis defenseless), before outlining the unique Shi’ite impurity or “najis” regulations. According to Al-Majlisi:

And, that they should not enter the pool while a Muslim is bathing at the public baths ... It is also incumbent upon Muslims that they should not accept from them victuals with which they had come into contact, such as distillates, which cannot be purified. If something can be purified, such as clothes, if they are dry, they can be accepted, they are clean. But if they [the dhimmis] had come into contact with those cloths in moisture they should be rinsed with water after being obtained. As for hide, or that which has been made of hide such as shoes and boots, and meat, whose religious cleanliness and lawfulness are conditional on the animal’s being slaughtered [according to the Shari’a], these may not be taken from them. Similarly, liquids that have been preserved in skins, such as oils, grape syrup, [fruit] juices ... and the like, if they have been put in skin containers or water skins, these should [also] not be accepted from them ... It would also be better if the ruler of the Muslims would establish that all infidels could not move out of their homes on days when it rains or snows because they would make Muslims impure.