Yerushalmi himself has laughed off suggestions that he is the “Svengali” of the anti-Sharia movement. He and his allies, he wrote in 2011, wished only to promote “a serious discussion of classical and still extant authoritative Islamic law—sharia—as the threat doctrine motivating jihadists from all over the globe.”
However one may characterize his motivations, voters in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere deserve to know who is writing their laws.
Intended and unintended consequences
If coverage of the roots of these bills has been scant, the effects of the bans on American Muslims have also gone largely undocumented.
In February, Rafia Zakaria of Amnesty International wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera detailing a divorce case involving an Iranian couple living in Kansas. The Kansas court refused to enforce a marriage contract that compelled the husband to make a substantial payment in case of divorce, partly because it had been crafted under Islamic law in Iran. Similar agreements have been honored in other state courts, Zakaria wrote.
The result? “Where no ban would have resulted in an immigrant woman being able to avail of the resources that would allow her to begin a new life in the US and rehabilitate herself from an abusive relationship,” Zakaria wrote, “a Sharia ban enabled the opposite, leaving her with nothing and allowing her more established husband to discard her with few consequences.”
The recent Brennan/CAP report noted that “the case was ultimately decided on other grounds,” but the episode demonstrated the complications and consequences of the Kansas Sharia ban. As far as this reporter could determine, the story was not covered by Kansas media.
The broader legal community has argued that the bans may affect a wide range of transactions, and not only for Muslims. The American Bar Association passed a resolution opposing the bans in 2011, warning that they would “prohibit parties’ freedom to contract” and even “interfere with the powers of the Executive and the Senate to negotiate and ratify treaties.”
Gov. Nixon, in vetoing Missouri’s anti-Sharia legislation this week, cited concerns that it would interfere with couples’ efforts to adopt children from abroad. Corporate interests have also complained that the measures could complicate companies’ efforts to do business overseas.
Raj Bhala, a law professor at the University of Kansas who is an expert on Sharia, told me in an email that by passing the ban in his home state, Brownback and the legislature have catalyzed extremism overseas—and also “have hurt Kansas, damaging its reputation in the global economy, thus cutting international business opportunities.”
Another concern, of course, is the simple fact of religious hostility and its psychological effect on Muslims here. Whether or not the word “Sharia” appears in these bills, they “send a discriminatory message,” the Brennan Center’s Toh said. “A lot of the statements made by proponents have been specifically targeted to Muslims and to the application of Sharia. I do think there is definitely an anti-Muslim animus driving these measures.”
The derisive tone of coverage of the bills, especially on the opinion pages, suggests that many media members agree—and they don’t have much sympathy for the sponsors’ motives.
Still, there has not been much engagement with the question: What happens to a minority community when its culture and traditions are singled out for official condemnation? Last September, CJR’s Jennifer Vanasco lamented the nationwide dearth of news coverage on American Muslims, reporting that “[a] Google news search for ‘American Muslims’ and ‘Muslim Americans’ turned up a grand total of zero results in June and July”—just after Brownback signed the Kansas Sharia ban into law—“and barely more for the balance of this year.”
Happily, there have been a few examples of standout coverage in Kansas and Missouri. The Post-Dispatch has given a recurring column to Ghazala Hayat, a St. Louis University professor and Islamic community leader; she gave her thoughts on an earlier Missouri anti-Sharia bill in a 2011 column. Last summer, longtime Kansas City Star religion editor Helen T. Gray, who has since retired, wrote a strong, substantive feature article offering some background on Sharia law and reactions to the Kansas ban from the Muslim perspective.
By far the best example of coverage in Kansas or Missouri this year was a May 22 segment on Kansas City public radio station KCUR. Central Standard host Brian Ellison spent an hour discussing the meaning and practice of Sharia, as well as the origin and impact of anti-Sharia legislation, with Raj Bhala, the KU law professor; Ryan Boyer, a law student who has written a soon-to-be-published article on the Sharia bans; and Mahnaz Shabbir, past president of the Heartland Muslim Council.