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September 2, 2011

Dont Fear Islamic Law in America


By ELIYAHU STERN
New Haven
MORE than a dozen American states are considering outlawing aspects of Shariah law. Some of
these efforts would curtail Muslims from settling disputes over dietary laws and marriage
through religious arbitration, while others would go even further in stigmatizing Islamic life: a
bill recently passed by the Tennessee General Assembly equates Shariah with a set of rules that
promote the destruction of the national existence of the United States.
Supporters of these bills contend that such measures are needed to protect the country against
homegrown terrorism and safeguard its Judeo-Christian values. The Republican presidential
candidate Newt Gingrich has said that Shariah is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in
the United States and in the world as we know it.
This is exactly wrong. The crusade against Shariah undermines American democracy, ignores
our countrys successful history of religious tolerance and assimilation, and creates a dangerous
divide between America and its fastest-growing religious minority.
The suggestion that Shariah threatens American security is disturbingly reminiscent of the
accusation, in 19th-century Europe, that Jewish religious law was seditious. In 1807, Napoleon
convened an assembly of rabbinic authorities to address the question of whether Jewish law
prevented Jews from being loyal citizens of the republic. (They said that it did not.)
Fear that Jewish law bred disloyalty was not limited to political elites; leading European
philosophers also entertained the idea. Kant argued that the particularistic nature of Jewish
legislation made Jews hostile to all other peoples. And Hegel contended that Jewish dietary
rules and other Mosaic laws barred Jews from identifying with their fellow Prussians and called
into question their ability to be civil servants.
The German philosopher Bruno Bauer offered Jews a bargain: renounce Jewish law and be
granted full legal rights. He insisted that, otherwise, laws prohibiting work on the Sabbath made
it impossible for Jews to be true citizens. (Bauer conveniently ignored the fact that many fully
observant Jews violated the Sabbath to fight in the Prussian wars against Napoleon.)
During that era, Christianity was seen as either a universally valid basis of the state or a faith that
harmoniously coexisted with the secular law of the land. Conversely, Judaism was seen as a
competing legal system making Jews at best an unassimilable minority, at worst a fifth
column. It was not until the late 19th century that all Jews were granted full citizenship in
Western Europe (and even then it was short lived).
Most Americans today would be appalled if Muslims suffered from legally sanctioned
discrimination as Jews once did in Europe. Still, there are signs that many Americans view
Muslims in this country as disloyal. A recent Gallup poll found that only 56 percent of
Protestants think that Muslims are loyal Americans.
This suspicion and mistrust is no doubt fueled by the notion that American Muslims are akin to
certain extreme Muslim groups in the Middle East and in Europe. But American Muslims are a
different story. They are natural candidates for assimilation. They are demographically the
youngest religious group in America, and most of their parents dont even come from the Middle
East (the majority have roots in Southeast Asia). A recent Pew Research Center poll found that
Muslim Americans exhibit the highest level of integration among major American religious
groups, expressing greater degrees of tolerance toward people of other faiths than do Protestants,
Catholics or Jews.
Given time, American Muslims, like all other religious minorities before them, will adjust their
legal and theological traditions, if necessary, to accord with American values.
Americas exceptionalism has always been its ability to transform itself economically,
culturally and religiously. In the 20th century, we thrived by promoting a Judeo-Christian ethic,
respecting differences and accentuating commonalities among Jews, Catholics and Protestants.
Today, we need an Abrahamic ethic that welcomes Islam into the religious tapestry of American
life.
Anti-Shariah legislation fosters a hostile environment that will stymie the growth of Americas
tolerant strand of Islam. The continuation of Americas pluralistic religious tradition depends on
the ability to distinguish between punishing groups that support terror and blaming terrorist
activities on a faith that represents roughly a quarter of the worlds population.
Eliyahu Stern, an assistant professor of religious studies and history at Yale, is the author of the
forthcoming The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism.