FAIRWAY, KS — For more than three years, lawmakers in Kansas, Missouri, and a host of other states have been pushing bills to prohibit the use of Islamic law—commonly referred to as Sharia—in US courts. There are a lot of serious questions one might ask about this anti-Sharia campaign, but among journalists, the bills have most often provoked incredulous, derisive, and sardonic responses: Is this really happening?
When the Kansas legislature sent anti-Sharia legislation to Gov. Sam Brownback’s desk last year, Kansas City Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah made the tongue-in-cheek argument that Brownback “better sign” the bill in order to burnish his “ultra-conservative” credentials and “to show those foreigners they can’t control the courts of Kansas. Just like they’ve been doing since, well, never.” When Brownback did in fact sign it, editors at the Winfield Daily Courier attributed the bill’s passage to a “sophomoric, circus-like atmosphere” prevailing at the state Capitol.
When strikingly similar legislation surfaced in Missouri last year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board dismissed it as “silly.” When a new version came up this year, the editors placed it on a list of recommended vetoes for Gov. Jay Nixon, but only in a subheading at the bottom among other “silly stuff” perpetrated by the legislature.
These amused and amusing reactions are understandable given the absurdity of the notion that “creeping Sharia,”—the alarmist term sometimes used by advocates of these bills—is poised to overwhelm the Midwest. But they understate the seriousness and persistence of the movement behind such legislation, and its potential effects on American Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
“I don’t think there is sufficient awareness of the consequences of these bans,” Amos Toh, a fellow at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, told me in an interview. Toh coauthored a report released last month, a joint effort between the Brennan Center and the Democratic-affiliated Center for American Progress, detailing “legal uncertainties and practical problems” presented by these bills, which have been enacted in six states so far.
Origins and goals
The Brennan/CAP report notes that these bills all have a common origin: “a small network of activists who cast Muslim norms and culture, which they collectively and inaccurately labeled as Sharia law, as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the Cold War.”
Back in 2011, The New York Times zeroed in on the leaders of this network, including well-known conservative activist Frank Gaffney, and also a little-known, Brooklyn-based attorney named David Yerushalmi.
According to the Times, Gaffney and Yerushalmi attempted in 2008 to convince Bush administration Treasury officials of the dangers of Sharia law, but were rebuffed. This led to a change in tactics.
“If you can’t move policy at the federal level, well, where do you go?” Yerushalmi told the Times. “You go to the states.”
The Republican electoral wave in the 2010 midterm elections ushered in an influx of Tea Party-influenced, conservative state legislatures across the country. These conservative legislatures provided a vessel for Yerushalmi and Gaffney to see their anti-Sharia beliefs enshrined in law.
As the Brennan/CAP report notes, “Ground zero for this effort was Oklahoma, and the lessons learned there provided a template for anti-Sharia efforts in other states.” Yerushalmi’s conservative allies raised money for an anti-Sharia ballot initiative in the Sooner state, which was overwhelmingly approved in 2010—but was later overturned by the courts on the grounds that it inhibited freedom of religion without serving a secular purpose. A wave of similar bills made their way through state legislatures in the next year and a half, garnering much publicity but limited success. In March 2012, Omar Sacirbey of the Religion News Service wrote a piece headlined, “Anti-Shariah Movement Loses Steam in State Legislatures.”
Just last month, however, Sacirbey wrote a new piece: “Anti-Shariah Movement Gains Success.” The movement’s leaders, undeterred by earlier failures, had changed tactics again.
Now, all explicit references to Sharia law in legislation would be excised in favor of a blanket ban on “foreign law.” Yerushalmi drafted a new template for anti-Sharia legislation that would be less vulnerable to court challenges. New bills in Oklahoma and Kansas followed this template almost verbatim—and both were ultimately signed into law.
Missouri legislators also seem to have followed Yerushalmi’s new template in drafting this year’s bill—a fact that was overlooked by most reporters in the state, as it had been in Kansas. Only the alt-weekly Riverfront Times, following up on arguments from the liberal advocacy group Progress Missouri, highlighted the fact that Missouri’s newest “anti-foreign law” bill was strikingly similar to Yerushalmi’s draft. (The bill’s sponsor said he was not familiar with Yerushalmi.)