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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in democracy and islam

Posted by on in Sharia

[My speech on "Is sharia compatible with democracy?" was presented in Maine on March 22, 2014. The below text differs slightly from the original as I was able to check a couple of references that I did not have access to while in Vacationland. From here forward, everything in brackets was added after the speech was delivered.]

Salaam alaykum. Peace be unto you. Good evening.

In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then a basketball player for the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand during the national anthem. Abdul-Rauf asserted that his action was a reflection of his understanding of the Islamic faith.

This sparked a nationwide debate.

Shortly after, one of the major news magazines ran a story about the ensuing controversy. The story featured a photo of a woman at a later Nuggets game wrapped in an American flag and crying. [She was demonstrating her outrage at Abdul-Rauf's deed.]

Abdul-Rauf's action was, in my opinion then and now, disrespectful and inappropriate. Indeed, he later stated that while he believed his motivation was correct, his choice of expression was not the best approach." So while I disagreed with the action, I would defend his right to do what he did.

Abdul-Rauf's act was political dissent, respect for which is enshrined in our national character. [This respect for dissent is why I also disagree with the woman in the photo. I defend her right to do what she did, but I think becoming angry at his act is also not the best approach.]

At the time there were calls for Abdul-Rauf to face consequences. He served a one game suspension.

Often in incidents like this we even hear legislators talk of passing laws to ban certain behaviors or to legally impose them. Outlawing flag burning, another form of protest I view as a crass political stunt, is a frequent example. I think the tension between faith, politics, ideals and their expression we see in the Abdul-Rauf incident is important to think about tonight.

Now, before my hosts get too nervous trying to figure out why the speaker is rambling on about a minor incident, I want to take a moment to increase their tension.

I respectfully disagree with our chosen topic for tonight. I think it draws on incorrect assumptions about sharia, or Islamic legal principles, and democracy. I honestly think there is another, more significant topic to be considered.

So I am going to beg your indulgence for a bit and allow me to make my case. I pray you will find by the end of our discussion that I have answered the "Is sharia compatible with democracy?" question anyway.

Sharia's ideals

To start, let's discuss sharia. Like jihad, it is a term that has been hijacked and turned into something scary.

To assist our discussion of sharia I will turn to a scholar, Asifa Quraishi-Landes. She teaches American constitutional law and Islamic law at the University of Wisconsin and has a doctorate from Harvard Law School among other honors. Here is a short passage from her paper "Sharia and Diversity" in which she describes sharia as literally meaning "way" or "street":

"Sharia refers to the way that God has advised Muslims to live, as documented in the Quran and exemplified in the practices of Prophet Muhammad. In other words, sharia can be understood as the Islamic recipe for living a good life. But of course, no one can taste a recipe. We can only taste the product of a chef's efforts to follow one. In addition, different chefs can follow the same recipe and still come up with quite varied results."

There are a few things I hope we hear in this reading.

First, Muslims recognize that the process of understanding God's will is ongoing. There is not a set of books equivalent to the U.S. Code sitting somewhere that spells out what the law is in fine detail. There is the ideal of divine law [found primarily in the Quran and the life of Islam's Prophet] and the reality of human interpretations of the law, which we can define using the Arabic term fiqh.

Second, we are painfully aware of our humanity and that we can interpret and express these ideals wrongly.

Third, there can be a wide variance in the understanding of Islam.

I like Quraishi-Landes's use of the recipe metaphor. Sharia is the recipe, but different religious scholars produce varied dishes from it.

Let me give you a real world example of the variety [available to Muslims.]

One of Islam's most important holidays is Eid Al-Fitr. It comes at the end of Ramadan, the month wherein Muslims eat no food, drink no water and avoid other physical indulgences during daylight hours. Ramadan is a time of great spiritual reflection and self-denial, Eid is the party at the end. I would be lying to you if I did not admit that after a month of food and sleep deprivation it is a joy to get this party started.

The problem is, we have a hard time agreeing on when it starts. Islam is on a lunar calendar, and thus the date of Eid changes each year in relation to our own calendar. Some Muslims maintain Eid starts when someone of good reputation sees the new moon with their eyes, thus starting the new month. Others say we can use scientific calculations to know the exact moment of the birth of the new moon. Many immigrant Muslims prefer go with when their country of origin says Eid starts. Others say that since Islam is now worldwide, we should all go with when Mecca, the place all Muslims face when we pray, recognizes the start of Eid.

As a result, every year we hear conversations in mosques along the lines of "Are you celebrating Eid on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday?"

We have people going to their employers and saying, "next week is our most important religious holiday of the year, I need to take the day off." The boss usually replies, "Sure, what day do you need?" Then we get the rather awkward response of, "Well, it might be Monday, but maybe Tuesday, perhaps Wednesday."

As an aside, next time someone tells you Muslims have some shady conspiracy to subvert the Constitution, remember this holiday. If we cannot organize our major holidays, I doubt we can pull off a vast conspiracy. I have also never encountered any actual Muslim interest in such a conspiracy.

So, sharia was and is developed to be flexible and dynamic in practice. This was done in order to achieve two main goals, and protect six main principles in society. The two goals are to bring good to humanity community, and to repel harm from humanity. Please note, this is not bring good to Muslims, and to repel harm from Muslims. It is humanity.

All religious rules must be in line with these six principles of Sharia, presented here as written out by Sumbul Ali-Karamali:

  • "The right to the protection of life.
  • "The right to the protection of family.
  • "The right to the protection of education (intellect).
  • "The right to the protection of property (access to resources).
  • "The right to the protection of human dignity.
  • "The right to the protection of religion."

Sharia must then adapt with respect to the social, political, and cultural climate of a given place and time in order to ensure that these two goals are met, and these six principles are protected. In fact, sharia mandates that a Muslim practice their faith while respecting the law of the land in which they reside.

Throughout history the way to achieve these goals and protect these principles has differed between various philosophies, eras, communities, and leaders. At the center of these various interpretations is always intended to be human good.

Ibn al Qayyim, a notable medieval-era Islamic jurist put it this way, "The foundation of the sharia is wisdom and the safeguarding of people's interests in this world and the next. In its entirety it is justice, mercy and wisdom. Every rule which transforms justice to tyranny, mercy to its opposite, the good to the evil, and wisdom to triviality does not belong to the sharia. ..."

So these are the ideals behind Islamic legal principles. We Muslims, like every other way of life with which I am familiar, do not always live up to our own ideals.

Let's think about one example. In Islamic inheritance a son gets a full share and a daughter gets a half share. This is done because the son is expected to pay for funeral expenses and support all family members. The daughter can choose to help, but it is not an obligation. Similarly, a man is obligated to financially support his family. Any money a wife earns is hers to do with as she chooses, she can contribute or not as she wishes.

These are the ideals aimed at ensuring everyone is supported financially and it is clear who is responsible. Does it always work out that way? No.

American ideals

In my opinion, ideals are at the core of our conversation tonight. They are precious things. We in America have them and strive for them. We Americans, like every other way of life with which I am familiar, do not always live up to our own ideals.

In 1761, Boston lawyer James Otis spoke against overly-broad warrants issued by the British government. These Writs of Assistance allowed the crown's agents to search any house or ship they chose. John Adams -- who went on to sign the Declaration of Independence and become our nation's second president -- said of Otis's speech, "Then and there, the child Independence was born."

In 2013, shortly after revelations of overly-broad warrantless surveillance of the American public by the National Security Agency, or NSA, the Pew Research Center found 56 percent of Americans think this is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism." Sixty-two percent agreed that it is more important for the government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if it intrudes on personal privacy." A stark contrast to the men who founded our nation.

More recently, Pew reported, "Today, 40% approve of the government's collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, while 53% disapprove." Pew adds, "In addition, nearly half (48%) say there are not adequate limits on what telephone and internet data the government can collect."

So here we see an example of our national struggle to balance our ideals with reasonable concerns for public safety and less reasonable fears that may cause us to be too willing to give up ideals the founders valued.

John Adams, by the way, set the standard for placing ideals over emotions when he acted as legal counsel to British soldiers accused in the Boston massacre, one of those iconic incidents that contributed to sparking full scale colonial revolt against King George.

The ideal, broadly embraced in our society, was later expressed in the Sixth Amendment as an accused having the right to the assistance of counsel to his defense.

Writing in his diary, Adams expressed fear he felt for his own safety, as well as that of his family from more radical elements of the revolutionary movement. Of his decision to defend the soldiers Adams concluded: "It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country."

Let's consider a couple of more recent examples.

In 2004, three years after the 9/11 attacks, Cornell University reported that "nearly half of all Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim-Americans." This included "27 percent of respondents supported requiring all Muslim-Americans to register where they lived with the federal government."

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any "religious test" for public office. However, in 2010 Time reported that "twenty-eight percent of voters do not believe Muslims should be eligible to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court" and that "nearly one-third of the country thinks adherents of Islam should be barred from running for president."

The lesson I see here is that we have grand ideals in this nation, but our reality does not always live up to them. The struggle to enshrine our ideals is long and difficult.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Civil War, James McPherson reports on English Protestant Americans' suspicion of German and Irish Catholic immigrants to the U.S. in the nineteenth century. He writes, "most of these new Americans worshipped in Roman Catholic churches. Their growing presence filled some Protestant Americans with alarm. Numerous nativist organizations sprang up as the first line of resistance in what became a long and painful retreat toward acceptance of cultural pluralism."

Striving to "civilize" Native Americans, the federal government instituted a practice of taking children away from their parents and placing them in off-reservation boarding schools. Here, the children were to learn a culture not their own. These schools still existed in the 1960s.

It took until 1920, 144 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to pass a constitutional amendment granting women full voting rights. The Lilly Ledbetter Act, signed into law in 2009, reminds us that women in America still struggle for equal pay for equal work.

Our nation placed Japanese-Americans in internment camps following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The deeply troubling story of the African-American struggle for full equality is well known. Sadly, it is commonplace for minority groups and their leaders to be vilified.

Martin Luther King, a non-violent, civil rights icon, has a federal holiday named after him and won a Nobel Peace Prize.

However, before his assassination, he was branded the "most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country" in an FBI memo. His calls and sometimes hotel rooms were wiretapped. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled King a degenerate.

Which Democracy?

I hope by now you may begin to see why my concern is not "Is sharia compatible with democracy?" The term democracy may not even be the best for our thoughts tonight. Like Islam, democracy takes many forms.

The citizens of Athens, a direct democracy where only landed males could vote, would hardly recognize our system. Pirate democracy, entertaining as the subject is, is probably not a focus for us tonight. On a pirate ship, all crew got a vote and the captain was elected.

Some -- maybe Vladimir Putin -- would call the recent referendum in Crimea an instance of democracy. But voting is not necessarily an indicator of a healthy democracy. We are all familiar with despotic rulers who handily win "vote me or else" elections.

Indeed, our own democracy, the recipe the Founding Fathers gave us is constantly being assessed by new chefs. When the U.S. Constitution came into effect, 10 of the 13 states required a voter to own property or pay some form of tax. Today, such requirements cause outrage.

Examining the ideals side-by-side

But, as you may have noticed, the ideals, the principles behind our expression of democracy do offer us a guide to the target of our thoughts tonight.

Two documents give us a sense of the recipe:

The Declaration of Independence asserts that the right of the people "to alter or to abolish their government" must remain intact and the people must have the freedom to lay government's "foundation on such principles" and organize "its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

The Constitution adds additional thoughts: "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.""

These are the goals of the democracy our founders created. These are the ideals, the recipe.

Let me remind you of the two main goals and six main principles of sharia. The two goals are to bring good to humanity, and to repel harm from humanity.

All religious rules must be in line with these six principles of sharia:

  • The right to the protection of life.
  • The right to the protection of family.
  • The right to the protection of education (intellect).
  • The right to the protection of property (access to resources).
  • The right to the protection of human dignity.
  • The right to the protection of religion.

I hope you are beginning to hear what I concluded long ago -- that the similarities between Islamic sharia ideals and western democratic ideals are fairly obvious.

Many Muslims have already concluded the ideals are similar. This is not just my opinion. Early after my decision to embrace Islam I heard a story. I do not know if it is fact, but it expresses a reality I have heard many Muslims agree with. In short, after visiting America, a Muslim scholar is reported to have said, "I went to the east and found Muslims without Islam. I went to the west and found Islam without Muslims."

This scholar is saying he saw in the west Islamic principles in action where Islam was not the majority faith. He is saying in many countries where Islam is the majority faith, politics and history have created circumstances where Islamic principles are not expressed in society.

In 2011, the Fiqh Council of North America adopted a resolution titled "On Being Faithful Muslims and Loyal Americans."

Here are a few lines from that resolution:

  • Like other faith communities in the US and elsewhere, we see no inherent conflict between the normative values of Islam and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  • Likewise, the core modern democratic systems are compatible with the Islamic principles of Shura -- mutual consultation and co-determination of all social affairs at all levels and in all spheres, family, community, society, state, and globally.
  • Islamic teachings require respect of the laws of the land where Muslims live as minorities, including the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, so long as there is no conflict with Muslims' obligation for obedience to God. We do not see any such conflict with the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. The primacy of obedience to God is a commonly held position of many practicing Jews and Christians as well.

Aside: Al-Qaeda is everybody's enemy

At this moment of thinking about the parallels between Islamic ideals and western democratic ideals, let me insert a couple of thoughts about Al-Qaeda and their ideological allies.

Extremists who claim that Islam motivates, or worse, sanctions, their atrocities have done deep harm to Islam. Their terrorism, the blatant human rights abuses, their complete distortion of the faith -- these provide the breeding ground for much of the anti-Muslim extremism we are living through today.

The worldview of violent extremists is a complete distortion of Islam. Islamic teachings clearly state that the killing of one innocent is the moral equivalent to the killing of all humanity.

To the more than a billion Muslims worldwide, Islam is a religion that teaches tolerance, justice and compassion. Unfortunately, for many who know little of Islam or Muslims, violent extremists have come to personify both.

What many do not realize is that in the struggle against Al-Qaeda and its ideological allies we can adopt an us [America] vs. them [Muslims] attitude or we can adopt a "we are all in the struggle against violent extremism together" approach.

At least 31 Muslims were among the victims of the 9/11 attackers. This includes Mohammed Salman Hamdani, who went into one of the Twin Towers to offer assistance and died while doing so. His sacrifice was noted in the USA PATRIOT ACT.

After reviewing a 2009 report titled Deadly Vanguards: A Study of Al-Qaida's Violence Against Muslims, Ralph Peters wrote in the New York's Daily Post, "Al-Qaeda does one thing extremely well: killing Muslims."

President Obama echoed this conclusion at a White House Ramadan fastbreaking reception in 2010 when he noted, "In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11."

American Muslims are on the front lines of protecting American ideals

The more we think about it, the more the us [democracy] vs. them [sharia] dichotomy falls apart.

Now here is a key, and for this gathering, crucial reality, that may surprise you: American Muslims are on the front lines of protecting American ideals.

Anti-Muslim sentiment in America has resulted in a certain willingness by a significant proportion of Americans to undermine the Constitution.

We are not just talking about [survey respondent's] words and opinions. In 2010 Oklahoma voters approved SQ 755, a state constitutional amendment banning judges in that state from considering Islamic religious principles in their rulings. In practice this would have prohibited a judge from probating an Islamic will, marriage agreement or other contracts such as home financing structured according to the Islamic prohibition against interest-bearing loans.

In the voting booth, Oklahomans were told that "Islamic religious principles are based on two principal sources, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed."

This language rather directly contradicts the First Amendment in two key ways. First, the Establishment Clause prohibits government from condemning or endorsing any religion. Second, the Free Exercise Clause guarantees all persons of faith equal liberty to practice their faith.

Now, persons of faith regularly enter contracts or enact incorporating elements of their faith. So long as such provisions do not violate U.S. law, it is irrelevant to courts from where the provision originates.

For example, if a Jewish person enacts a will that directs a court to divide his estate in accordance with a particular verse found within his religious tradition, a court would likely comply with this request. But if a Muslim person were to attempt something similar in a state that has passed an anti-Islam bill such as Oklahoma's SQ 755, that Muslim would be prevented from doing so. This differential freedom accorded to members of one faith over another is what the Free Exercise Clause was written to protect against.

For this reason a CAIR staff person in Oklahoma challenged the law in court. Interestingly, CAIR was accused of trying to subvert the Constitution while we were making the First Amendment arguments I just presented to you. In 2013 a federal judge struck the amendment down as unconstitutional.

Oklahoma's bill wasn't unique. In 2011 and 2012, 78 bills or amendments designed to vilify Islamic religious practices were introduced in the legislatures of 29 states and the U.S. Congress. I am still tallying 2013, but it looks like another [37 bills in 16 states] total bills. Anti-Islam bills are now law in seven states.

As a second example that Muslims are on the front line of protecting American ideals, let's look at the 2012 presidential election, one of our nation's most visible platforms for political thought.

Herman Cain was for a while the frontrunner for the GOP's presidential nomination.

Speaking to Christianity Today on March 11, 2011, Cain said that followers of the Muslim religion have "an objective to convert all infidels or kill them." Cain also said that Muslims who wanted to serve in his administration would have to take loyalty oaths. He explained to Fox News host Glenn Beck that he would not require similar oaths from Mormons or Catholics "because there is a greater dangerous part of the Muslim faith than there is in these other religions.""

As we know from earlier, this would violate Article VI's ban on "religious tests" for public office. So, here we have a man, a frontrunner, committing to undermining the Constitution. Did he get tossed from the stage? No. He got applause.

Rick Santorum, also a frontrunner for a time, endorsed religious profiling during one of the GOP presidential debates, saying, "Obviously, Muslims would be someone you'd look at." In January 2012, journalists brought attention to a lengthy Islamophobic rant Santorum gave in 2007 during which he asserted that in order to "win" against a vaguely-defined Muslim enemy, Americans must "educate, engage, evangelize, and eradicate."

A former speaker of the U.S. House, Newt Gingrich, yet another onetime frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, told an audience that he feared that by the time his grandchildren reach his age "they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." If you find Gingrich's assertion that a future secular atheist America will be run by Islamic radicals confusing, don't worry -- so does everyone else.

While these facts are disconcerting, they are nothing new. Just as Jews, Catholics and others stood up to prejudice, so, too, are Muslims. In fact, Muslims benefit from the lessons these other faith traditions learned in their struggles against prejudice. America's Muslims also recognize that while the lens of prejudice may be on us today, it will eventually turn elsewhere. We want to make sure our struggle is a benefit to this next group and our nation as a whole. We should stop splitting into two different camps.

So, to my understanding, our original topic tonight has the effect of slicing us into two different camps. "Is sharia (them) compatible with democracy (us)?"

I am pretty sure, hearing that topic, most of you did not come here expecting an American history lesson. However, I pray that what I have said tonight brings you to share my conviction that we are, in fact, allies.

Islam and American democracy may disagree on some things. However, just as best friends often disagree without it hurting their relations we too can be adults and debate differences while partnering on ideals. Frankly, those differences are relatively minor. Violent extremists like al-Qaeda may trying to convince you otherwise, but they are everyone's enemy.

I also pray that we can now start our conversation from a healthy place -- not one of "us vs. them," but of how do we work together to establish our shared ideals of justice.

Thank you.

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