Mar 4, 2013

An emerging alliance in defense of sharia

The attacks on sharia law in American have been vociferous and completely out of proportion with actual instances of sharia law in America. A coalition of conservatives with various concerns have sought to enact legislation prohibiting sharia -- prohibiting state judges from considering religious codes that Muslims believe to be binding and might, e.g., have cited in private contracts, or even going so far as to enact legislation that equates adherence to the Islamic rules for worship with terrorism, so that "sharia organizations," including mosques, would be illegal.

Defenders of sharia against these state prohibitions are now arising from a perhaps unexpected quarter. Sharia has an ally with some Jewish legal thinkers and some Jewish groups concerned about the way these laws infringe on religious liberty.

From Florida:
A Florida state bill targeting a supposed threat from Islamic law may instead end up preventing Orthodox couples from using Jewish religious courts, or batei din, to arbitrate their divorces, according to legal specialists and some Jewish groups. 
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has vowed to fight the bill. So too has the strictly Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America.
There are other problems with the proposed Florida law, including the fact it is worded so ambiguously that it's not at all clear how the courts might apply the legislation. One Jewish state representative is arguing that the law is designed to have no legal effect at all, actually, and is merely meant to "generate fear of Muslims," reinforcing some of the political rhetoric of recent days.

What's interesting, though, is this alliance between a religious Jewish groups and Islamic groups. An important feature of fights over religious liberty in the United States is the way that different groups end up politically allied, with common cause. This was true in 1802, when Deists and Baptists came together in opposition to the establishment of religion, and in 1989, when the Native American Church's religious use of peyote was defended by the Traditional Values Coalition, the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals and the American Jewish Congress in their push to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

As the political landscape shifts, groups that might otherwise have little in common come together. Change, in these sorts of affairs, seems to happen by this process of alliances.

Others have noted the possible common cause of Muslims' wanting to defend their right to use sharia in some limited legal contracts and so forth and other religious groups in America. Eric N. Kniffen, of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, has argued that the case against Muslims' religious practice in America is historically similar to the cases made against Jews, Mormons and Catholics, implying that those groups ought to sympathize with and even support American Muslims in these political struggles. Matthew Schmitz, of First Things, made the argument that there's no reason to be more suspicious of Muslims' claims to religious freedom than of Protestants' or Catholics', and that there is, rather, a common cause the three groups could share: protecting the US Constitution against illiberal excesses. Eliyahu Stern, a religious studies and history professor at Yale, also made a case in the New York Times for the specific alliance of Jews and Muslims in opposition to a ban on sharia.

It has seemed to me, though, that those alliances was mostly theoretical. Jewish groups' sympathies for Muslims' rights to religious exercise have been mixed. For example, in the controversy over Perk51 -- the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" -- there seemed to a lot of conflict between Jewish groups, and even within Jewish groups.

It's too early to tell for sure, but perhaps that's changing. There are at least some efforts being made at the moment to flesh out the connections between Jewish religious practice in American and Muslim religious practice in America, and how their relationship to America law is identical. In Chicago, next month, for example, there's a conference of religious scholars and legal scholars considering the topic of "Shari'a and Halakha in America." There are experts on Judaism and on Islam scheduled to attend, as well as one scholar from a evangelical Christian school. At the conference, they plan to consider:
how liberal democracies can and should accommodate legal systems that are not themselves originally grounded on liberal or democratic principles [and] to what degree can systems of this sort adapt themselves to a liberal democratic environment? This conference will explore these questions, as they pertain to both shari'a and Jewish law (halacha).
The questions are good, but what's more important is the combination of Jewish and Muslim religious laws as the subjects of the question. Whether or not such efforts change the political landscape remains to be seen, but this is the sort of shift that does change things.