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.)
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.
Boyer detailed the long-term, coordinated national campaign to ban Islamic law. Bhala discussed the legal problems with the bans and offered a cultural overview of sharia. Shabbir discussed the ways that Sharia informs her everyday life—daily prayers, food, and dress—and she rejected the premise, which drives the Yerushalmi movement, that “creeping Sharia” is threatening to take over the U.S. legal system.
“Right now Islam has a target on the back,” she told Ellison. “… And what we have to do, and I’m glad you wanted to do this show, is the way that we can address fear is by education.”
KCUR producer Suzanne Hogan told me that the goal of the program was “demystifying Sharia” for listeners. “We didn’t want it to be a debate, necessarily, more just a basic education about what is sharia, first of all, and what is the significance of this legislation,” she said.
While the KCUR program may have lacked “balance,” it did accomplish what Sana Saeed, senior editor of Islawmix.org, envisioned when praising Zakaria’s op-ed: “a greater discussion on these bans which [focuses] on the tangible human effects as opposed to just pinning these bans aside as fringe legal moves of little to no consequence.”
For now, however, much of the media has not joined this “greater discussion.”
“With rare exceptions like KCUR and others, the media has not taken the issue … seriously enough,” Bhala told me. “In my personal opinion, officials in Kansas who have supported the anti-sharia legislation, and approved of it, have been given very nearly a ‘free pass.’ “
The media will have no shortage of opportunities for better coverage. In Kansas and five other states, Sharia bans are on the books for the foreseeable future, and the consequences have only begun to manifest themselves. In Missouri, Nixon’s veto is at risk of an override by the Republican supermajority—and failing that, expect to see another version of the ban moving through Jefferson City in 2014.
“If history is any indication, I think we will see these bills coming back,” Toh told me. “This is a persistent trend that is not likely to go away.”
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