COMMENTARY: The clear anti-Muslim bias behind anti-Shariah laws

NEW YORK (RNS) Foreign law bans are back.
Anti-Shariah demonstrators rally against a proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York.

Anti-Shariah demonstrators rally against a proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York.

For the fourth year running, Florida is trying to outlaw the use of foreign and international law in state courts. Missouri has mounted another attempt to pass an anti-foreign law measure after last year’s effort was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon. The bans also have crept farther north, making a debut in Vermont. These laws, which have passed in seven states, are the brainchild of anti-Muslim activists bent on spreading the illusory fear that Islamic laws and customs (also known as Shariah) are taking over American courts. This fringe movement shifted its focus to all foreign laws after a federal court struck down an Oklahoma ban explicitly targeting Shariah as discriminatory toward Muslims. But, as explained in a report by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, by banning all foreign law, the laws create new problems, particularly for American businesses with commercial relationships overseas. To avoid ensnaring routine international commerce, supporters of foreign law bans have added a confusing array of restrictions and exemptions to ensure that only those who are disfavored are targeted. And as these restrictions pile up, the bans come full circle and reveal their true purpose: to demonize the Islamic faith. For decades, American courts have applied foreign law as long as it does not violate U.S. public policy. This approach has worked well: Supporters of the bans have yet to point to a single case where foreign law has been used to violate the rights of Americans. U.S. companies are increasingly involved in cross-border transactions, and sometimes prefer to rely on foreign law because it protects their interests. When disputes arise, they count on the courts to respect their choice and apply the appropriate foreign legal principles. Responding to concerns that these laws would be bad for business, legislators in several states exempted corporations, which were never the intended targets anyway. But this exemption led to even more questions: What about unincorporated businesses? Sole proprietors? When employees take corporations to court, how will the bans affect the proceedings? To avoid this new set of problems, many foreign law bans — such as the ban in North Carolina and the bill recently introduced in Florida — are expressly limited to family matters. America is a country of immigrants, and this focus on family disputes affects all of us who have relatives overseas, regardless of their faith. For example, Jewish-American couples who marry in Israel, where such marriages and divorces are governed by rabbinic law, could be in trouble in Florida. The bill pending in Tallahassee may prevent courts from recognizing any marriage license, divorce decree or child custody order issued in Israel. In Missouri, groups that help childless couples adopt from overseas successfully lobbied Nixon to veto the ban last year. But the response has been characteristically insular. Rather than abandon an unnecessary and potentially hazardous measure, Missouri legislators are pressing on with a ban that targets all family matters — except adoptions.
Faiza Patel is the co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security program. Photo courtesy of Brennan Center for Justice.

Faiza Patel is the co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. Photo courtesy of Brennan Center for Justice.

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The motives of those pushing for bans on foreign law become clearer with each limitation. It beggars belief that supporters of these bans are genuinely concerned about the purported ills of foreign law when they are so ready to make concessions. Instead, “foreign law” provides a convenient — and increasingly transparent — fig leaf for supporters to stir up misconceptions and fear about Muslims. Although the legislators leading the charge for foreign law bans have not been shy about their agenda, the state legislators who vote for them for other reasons can no longer pretend they don’t understand what these bans are about. Nor can the federal government. President Obama has recognized the importance of the role played by all faiths in our democracy and has chastised foreign governments for their treatment of minority religious communities. But he has done little to stem this tide of anti-Muslim propaganda disguised as law. It’s time he took a public stance and condemned these moves as divisive to our democracy.
Amos Toh is a fellow at the Brennan Center. Photo courtesy of Brennan Center for Justice

Amos Toh is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. Photo courtesy of Brennan Center for Justice

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The Department of Justice, too, should drop its passive approach and start examining whether there are federal law grounds for challenging these laws. America’s religious communities should not have to wage this battle alone. (Faiza Patel is the co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. Amos Toh is a fellow at the Brennan Center. They are co-authors of “Foreign Law Bans,” a report on the consequences of anti-Shariah law measures.)  

6 Responses to “COMMENTARY: The clear anti-Muslim bias behind anti-Shariah laws”

  1. jules of Holy Toledo

    Absolutely brilliant Mr. O’Gara….why not “seven billion religions rather than thirty”
    I agree, 100%
    Never mind the pitfalls of partisan politics and it’s divisive nature….organized religion seems to divide us like nothing else….
    Consdering the seething hatred, anger, violence and economic ruin brought about by religion…..perhaps it’s best to draw back into our soul, our very essence and let our religion become an in-ward, personal faith journey without all the steeples, ritual, laws, and ornate edifices we now call religion.
    Interestingly, I find the dreaded word “secular state” seems to work best.
    OK, so I guess the best place to start is to start taxing the “hell” out of religions and their endeavours…no more free rides. Yep, that’s a start!

    …observer Jules…

  2. Patrick O'Gara

    …And you can throw in Ireland, up ’til about 15 years ago, Jules, not to mention Franco’s Spain. (Please!)
    It’s always a problem when there’s only a few religions around.
    Voltaire got it right when he said something like, “…One religion in a country means despotism, two is a recipe for civil war, and thirty (like they had in England in his day) is just dandy. ”
    Personally, I’d like to see seven billion religions rather than thirty. But it’s a start.
    So, let’s have more Baha’i the merrier, and ancestor worship, and Quivering Brethrenism – and whatever enters people’s heads.

  3. jules of Holy Toledo

    Having lived under pseudo- shariah law called Roman Catholicism….in 1950’s Toledo and later in 1960’s Catholic Quebec, Canada….places where the all powerful and all knowing Priest was intune with all that was seen and all that is un-seen… I would pass on the opportunity to live that life again.
    For the record, the Priests had their “snitches” ….yeah, it was shariah, alright!

    …observer Jules…..

  4. chuck childers

    We need your help to stop Christian persecution in Muslim countries around the world. Christians are being driven out of Iraq, , persecuted in Indonesia , Iran, Egypt , I’m reaching out to you . I can write letters for you here in America if you can help our brothers overseas

    • Michele Joseph

      Hi Chuck,
      I just now saw this; I was ill when it printed.
      What kind of help do you need ?

  5. Patrick O'Gara

    This is a totally incomprehensible story.

    There is not one single instance or example of what “allowing” Sharia Law will mean – or not mean – for any of us.
    Regardless, I do not want to live under Sharia law, or Puritan law, or Methodist law or Catholic law. Regular old secular law is good enough for me.
    And, if I don’t like it, I can vote to change it.
    I doubt there is that provision in Sharia law. (But, no, I don’t know.)

    As to allowing “foreign law” – Are the writers saying, for instance, that female genital mutilation should be legal in America to placate the Saudis – or that we should jail gays to keep the Ugandans happy?
    If so, I’m against it.
    And, if the writers are not saying that – what the heck are they saying?

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