This month the Fox News website ran an article under the headline, “Advocates of Anti-Shariah Measures Alarmed by Judge’s Ruling.” It concerned a decision by a New Jersey family court judge earlier this year denying a restraining order to a woman who was sexually abused by her then husband, a Moroccan Muslim. Judge Joseph Charles ruled that her ex-husband did not have “criminal desire to or intent to sexually assault” her. Rather, he was exercising his prerogatives as the man understood them under Islamic law, or Sharia.
The article quotes only one “advocate” of anti-Sharia measures — representing a website called JihadWatch.com — but they are legion. Search “Sharia New Jersey” and you’ll find hundreds of blogs about the “Islamization” of the American judicial system, with headlines like “New Jersey: the new hotspot of Sharia” and “Sharia judge in NJ gets lifetime appointment.”
The idea that America is this close to having the Constitution replaced by the Koran used to be a fringe notion, but has inched closer to the mainstream thanks to “Islamist watchdog” bloggers like Daniel Pipes and Pamela Geller and was given a huge boost by Newt Gingrich. “The fight against shariah and the maddrassas and mosques which teach hatred and fanaticism is the heart of the enemy movement from which the terrorists spring forth,” Gingrich told the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a senior fellow. “One of the things I am going to suggest today is a federal law which says no court anywhere in the United States under any circumstance is allowed to consider shariah as a replacement for American law.”
Conservative think-tanker Frank Gaffney declares that “Americans across this country are struggling to understand the true nature of the threat we face from shariah. They are entitled to straight talk about the extent to which it is being insinuated, promoted, and legitimated not only in mosques but by banks, academic institutions, and government agencies.”
Charles’ ruling seems like the very kind of thing Gingrich and Gaffney are worried about. But there are two things worth considering here, especially if you are a member of a religious group whose special interests often collide with American jurisprudence — a group like, I don’t know, the Jews.
As David Kopel, a contributor to the conservative National Review, has pointed out, “American courts are governed by American law, but American law has long provided that parties to contracts can provide for alternative dispute resolution mechanisms (such as arbitration).”
Among those alternative mechanisms is the beit din, or rabbinic law court. Every day Jews go before batei din to arbitrate real estate deals, nasty divorces, and business disputes. In fact, according to the Beth Din of America, Jewish law does not allow a Jew to be a plaintiff in a secular court without first obtaining permission from a Jewish court.
Permitting people to settle their disputes in their own religious courts is not a “replacement” of American law, but a time-honored expression of religious freedom and accommodation.
But didn’t Judge Charles accept an unacceptable action in the name of “religious freedom”? Here’s another thing worth considering: Although you wouldn’t know it from the headline, the Fox article eventually points out that Charles’ ruling was overturned in July by New Jersey’s Appellate Court. The court ruled that the husband’s religious beliefs were irrelevant and that Judge Charles “was mistaken.”
In other words, the system worked. What’s striking about Gingrich and the other Sharia-phobes is their lack of faith in the Constitution, the American legal system, and the American people themselves.
Never mind that the Muslim world itself has hardly reached consensus on the nature of Sharia, which is less a legal code than a religious way of living. As Rabbi Alan Brill, a professor at Seton Hall University and an expert in interfaith relations, told me, it is the distinction between “Halacha,” the rabbinic law code, and “Torah,” a way of life rooted in Jewish wisdom. According to Lauren Vriens of the Council on Foreign Relations, “Many majority Muslim countries have a dual system in which the government is secular but Muslims can choose to bring familial and financial disputes to shariah courts.” Meanwhile, most Muslim countries do not enforce the traditional and often gruesome punishments prescribed in the Koran.
But let’s say there is some cohesive network or organization of Muslims intent on transforming our legal system and reducing the rest of us to second-class status. How are they going to pull it off? As Lee Smith put it in an important article in Tablet last week, “When Gingrich argues that ‘radical Islamists want to impose Shariah on all of us,’ I can’t imagine how he sees that happening, short of the largest land invasion in human history of foreign Muslim soldiers, administrators, and religious scholars with the connivance of millions of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and pagan American collaborators.”
Gaffney’s version, of a “soft” takeover of our banks, universities, and government agencies, is similarly preposterous. It singles out Islam as the one religion that cannot be accommodated in any of these institutions. It is based on the scare-mongering notion that once a court allows an insurance company to offer Sharia-compliant financing, it’s not long before an imam will be allowed to sentence an adulteress to death by stoning.
And it assumes, based on statements from the most radical imams (and willful ignorance of an American Muslim mainstream that rejects their extremism) that Muslim citizens are a fifth column, undermining America from within.
When did the war on global Islamist terror become a war on American Muslims? When did our faith in the American way morph into fantasies of American weakness and Muslim invincibility? And why would any Jew, whose people were once reviled in this country and pushed to the margins of its banks, academic institutions, and government agencies, buy into this bigotry?
An American patriot once said, “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”
That patriot was George W. Bush. He said it on Sept. 17, 2001. Now, nearly 10 years later, Newt Gingrich probably considers him a radical.