American Muslims launch campaign to repair Sharia’s reputation
In the wake of the Arab Spring across the Middle East, the Muslim form of jurisprudence, Sharia law, has come under the spotlight as many demand its implementation which is causing concern for Western leaders and policymakers unfamiliar with it.
In an attempt to clear the common misunderstanding between Western and Muslims values, American Muslims have embarked on a national campaign to clarify certain terms that have become synonymous with Sharia law.
A report on CNN, “Muslim campaign looks to repair Sharia’s reputation”, showed members of the Islamic Circle of North America describing its effort to “educate Americans” on what it says is the noble meaning of Sharia through conferences, billboards, and TV and radio. The group is also launching a national hot line to answer questions about Sharia and Islam.
For Muslims around the world, Sharia law is considered to be an Islamic way of life; a code of moral life from birth to burial as it represents a “superior way of life” compared to the “shackles of man-made law.”
Although in the West religion has been largely separated from law, in the Muslim world, Sharia has not been confined to purely religious matters. It is applied to a wide variety of ‘secular’ legal issues, ranging from inheritance, marriage, and divorce to contracts and criminal punishments. many Muslim-majority countries have now embarked upon conscious efforts to inject more religion into government, according to Kareem Elbayar, a JD/MA international affairs candidate at The George Washington University Law School.
“An increasing number of Muslim-majority countries are inserting ‘Sharia supremacy’ clauses into their constitutions, making any legislation which contradicts the provisions of Islamic law unconstitutional,” he said.
Meanwhile, Zahid Bukhari, president of Islamic Circle of North America told CNN on Saturday that Sharia was politicized in the post-9/11 world as the U.S. paid more attention to perceived threats from the Muslim world.
Bukhari says Republican presidential candidates have used the word to foment Islamophobia.
“We should have a federal law that says Sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States,” Newt Gingrich said to a standing ovation at the Values Voter Summit in Washington in 2010. “No judge will remain in office that tried to use Sharia law.”
“Some politicians like to abuse the word in this national spotlight they have,” Bukhari said. “They are trying to make it a dirty word.”
The campaign includes a website titled “Defending Religious Freedom: Understanding Sharia” listing ways people can get involved and answering questions about Sharia.
The “Sharia FAQ” sections discusses what the Sharia really is, whether it’s a threat and how it affects women. “Muslims are taught to respect the laws of the land they live in as long as they can still effectively practice being Muslim,” the website says. “Islam is a faith, a way to be in a community with others and be in a relationship with God. Like other people of faith, whose values are inspired by religious tradition, Muslims can be and are engaged citizens.”
One public service announcement features Rais Bhuiyan, who was shot in the face as part of a post-9/11 revenge killing but went on to lobby for the right of his shooter. “Join me in the fight against hate, ignorance and Islamophobia,” Bhuiyan says in the ad.
Sharia remains a source of controversy for scholars. Many words of different theological, historical, contemporary connotations have different meanings, and therefore applications of these terms varies. “As Islam moved to different countries, it began to adapt to a historical context,” said Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic studies at American University in Washington to CNN. “For example in Iran, Sharia means something slightly different than other countries.” The religious meaning of the word, said Ahmed, is the path to righteousness.
But that changed in the public mind after the 9/11 attacks, according to Clark Lombardi, professor of Islamic law at University of Washington in Seattle.
“Sharia has become a political buzz word,” Lombardi said. “The word Sharia has an extremely wide and complex semantic tradition. To use the word is a fraught path.”
While a comprehensive refutation and a misconception of Islamic law and teachings remains debated, many non-Muslims seem to believe that Sharia is incompatible with a modern and democratic human rights framework. Pamela Geller, an outspoken Sharia critic, and Frank Gaffney, president of the conservative American Center for Security Policy said that the campaign is an attempt to “whitewash or outright deny the elements of Sharia that conflict with constitutional freedoms: the denial of the freedom of speech and the freedom of conscience, and the institutionalized discrimination and subjugation of women and non-Muslims,” according to CNN.
Harris Zafar, spokesman for the United States Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, said to CNN that opinions like Gaffney’s and Geller’s show no matter how much an organization focuses on a program, it will never reach everyone. “There are always going to be the Pamela Gellers of the world,” Zafar said. “People who have their intentions and no matter what we educate, it is not going to connect with them.
“This debate becomes a distraction from allowing us to talk about more meaningful things,” he added.
“We like having dialogues about spirituality, but we get distracted by conversations of Sharia, of jihad, of apostasy and the conversation becomes more about this is what Islam is not, as opposed to a proactive conversation about real Islam.”
The ICNA campaign plans to make its 30-35 chapters across the U.S. and will be highlighted prominently at the group’s annual convention in May in Hartford, Connecticut.