Religious Freedom And Sharia Law

In Paris, last week, when a Muslim cab driver picked me up I noticed a slight discomfort came over me. I realized, at that moment, that American religious fanatics had succeeded at convincing me to be afraid. Religion, at its best, furthers deep value formation and creates bridges and connections whereas religion at its worst is destructive and spreads fear throughout society. There is a growing religious fanaticism, with diverse manifestations, that seeks to promote fear of the other and that fear almost inevitability leads to hate. This fear and hate is unfortunately not absent from major segments of the Jewish communal discourse.

There is a conspiracy theory in circulation that Muslim leaders are attempting to replace American law with the Sharia (Islamic law). This fear has escalated to a level where as many as thirteen states are considering or have passed bills that would formally prohibit the application of Sharia. In Oklahoma, 70 percent of the electorate approved this amendment to the state’s Constitution: “The [Oklahoma] courts…when exercising their judicial authority…shall not consider international laws or Sharia Law.”


The Orthodox Union has spoken out against this discrimination, as has the Anti Defamation League. National director of the ADL Abe Foxman has written, “The anti-Sharia bills are more than a matter of unnecessary public policy. These measures are, at their core, predicated on prejudice and ignorance. They constitute a form of camouflaged bigotry that enables their proponents to advance the idea that finds fault with the Muslim faith and paints all Muslim Americans as foreigners and anti-American crusaders.”


To be sure, I am personally very concerned about many messages coming out of the Islamic community. I’m also concerned about how Sharia is being applied in extreme and dangerous ways around the world. There are radicals who choose a fundamentalist approach to Islamic jurisprudence. This is happening in parts of Iran and Saudia Arabia, and in radical groups like the Taliban, but discrimination is not the appropriate response.


Maimonides made it clear not only that Islam is not an idolatrous faith, but rather that the Jewish people can learn a lot from Muslim thought (Maachalot 11:7). In addition to learning from our Muslim brethren we should commit to supporting their autonomy.


Furthermore, the banning of Islamic law is a violation of the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and of the establishment clause, by giving pre-eminence to one religion over another. All Americans should be afraid of the implications of this movement upon their own personal liberties.


Jewish, Christian, and Muslim legal tribunals have operated in the U.S., presiding over matters of religious ritual and internal disputes, in cooperation with the government courts for over half a century. Certain cases, due to their religious nature, are not able to be brought before the secular courts due to the separation of religion and state. If religious communities can’t have their own private jurisdiction, where are they supposed to deal with their most pressing day-to-day issues? Banning religious arbitration leaves them without options.


We should never forget the real threat of terrorism motivated by Muslim fundamentalists, but as free-thinking American Jews we must learn to distinguish between real threats and false fear tactics.


What a powerful message it would send for the committed Jewish community, which has no lack of tension with the Muslim community, to commit to serve as defenders of religious freedom for all. It is precisely at a time of freedom such as now that we must safeguard these freedoms for all people. The biblical imperative, “Uvacharta Bachaim,” that we must choose is a direct mandate for expanding freedom and liberty to all. Now is the time to defend those under attack. We must do it for ourselves, for the sake of others, and to honor our core Jewish values.


Now more than ever, we need to challenge the conspiracy theories and ensure that we raise our moral voices to promote the freedom that we are so blessed with for all. It is not only religious communities that should feel concerned for religious freedom. Government and business should be disturbed since fear mongering destroys communal trust and the basic fabric of our society which hurts all. We all flourish in a culture of hope and collaboration not a culture of fear and isolation.


We cannot allow religion based on fear and hate to overcome a religion of love. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once said: “If God had given me two hearts, I could use one for hating and the other one for love. But since I was given only one heart, I have only room for love.”


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life and the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year doctoral student at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be coming out in early 2012. 

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