Shari’a, like most legal codes from the 7th century, is not well-suited to many aspects of life in a modern liberal democracy. Particularly notorious are the huduud, or “limits,” which detail offenses against God that require particularly severe punishment — these are the beheadings, severed hands and stonings the media is so keen to associate with Islamic law. When 70 percent of Oklahoma voters approved State Question 755 — the so-called Save Our State Amendment — these were the nightmarish images they had in mind. They feared that theocracy would be the inevitable consequence “looking at international law or Sharia Law when deciding cases.”
The “international law” referred to here is a fatuous gesture towards equanimity, like the absurd restriction on “large crosses” in the 2004 French law that banned headscarves from public schools. But the Amendment’s principal author, State Representative Rex Duncan, has no qualms about its true purpose or urgency — in his words, the measure is a key victory in the “war for the survival of America.” Never mind that no judge in Oklahoma has ever come close to invoking Shari’a; never mind that U.S. law always trumps the religious laws that coexist beneath it at the communal level; or that singling out Shari’a almost certainly constitutes a violation of the First Amendment.
Harbingers of approaching fundamentalist doom are fond of citing a June 2009 case in which a New Jersey judge denied a restraining order to a woman whose husband had repeatedly sexually assaulted her. The court claimed that the husband had acted in accordance with what he believed to be his prerogative under Islam. A year later, the New Jersey Appellate Court reversed the decision, but the damage was done. The case is now touted as a sign that action must be taken to stop activist judges and subversive Islamic forces from infiltrating the American legal system.
The judge, Joseph Charles, certainly made a heinous error. Marital rape is illegal, under any circumstances — including U.S. law and many interpretations of the Shari’a. Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council for American-Islamic Relations, called Judge Charles’ notion that Islam either excuses or permits the husband’s behavior “absolute fantasy, and hateful.”
Yes, judges are fallible. But as the Fox News article on the case pointed out, with commendable common sense, religious law only holds in the U.S. in the case of contracts mutually agreed on by both parties. For instance, a couple may sign a marriage agreement that allows a private religious court to arbitrate any potential divorce settlement. Such contracts may not contradict existing laws — no court would have recognized a document produced by the New Jersey husband stating his wife had agreed to let him assault her. Religious citizens may invoke similar provisions for the execution of wills, burial rites, and dietary measures — exactly the grounds upon which an Oklahoma Muslim, Muneer Awad, is appealing State Question 755.
Far from potentially denying rights, applications of Shari’a ensure the Constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion. Anti-Islamic conservatives fear a paper tiger, recalling isolationist anti-Catholic diatribes of the early 20th century, which warned of an America subjected to papal dominion. Our legal systems are stronger than that. They don’t need the help of pointless, discriminatory statutes that falsely invoke patriotism to weaken the power of pluralism.
As Yale students, we are familiar with what it means to live under two systems of law: one communal and based on tradition, the other broader and more fundamental. The rules of Yale College cannot contradict Connecticut State Law. Rather, they define our communal values and guide our conduct. We understand that when our deans warn us about “illegal extensions,” no one will be taken to court — our transcripts may be at stake, but not our liberty. Navigating these coexisting systems mreinforces our civic sense. The Blue Book enhances our citizenship by deepening our commitment to responsibility and situating us within a network of relationships more immediate than the ties binding us to state and nation.
When laws cease to preserve our rights and assume symbolic dimensions, they threaten the very integrity they seek to ensure. As participants in two nested legal systems, we at Yale have a crucial commitment to invoke pluralism as a front-line defense against discrimination. This responsibility, not xenophobic amendments, is what truly constitutes saving our state.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.