The Lookout

In interviews, American Muslims say they reject separate ‘sharia’ law system

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News
The Lookout

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The Islamic Society of North American conference in 2006 (AP/M. Spencer Green)

A new study based on interviews with more than 200 North American Muslims over four years concludes that a recent spate of state laws banning "sharia law" from the court system may be an overreaction to a non-existent threat.

Oklahoma, Tennessee and Louisiana each passed laws or referendums to ban state judges from considering sharia and other foreign laws last year, and more than 20 other states have debated similar legislation. Newt Gingrich has called for a federal law to ban sharia, while his fellow Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has said sharia law is an "existential threat" to America.

The qualitative study, by University of Windsor law professor Julie MacFarlane and published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding think tank, is the first to ask American Muslims what they think of sharia, or Islamic religious law. MacFarlane interviewed 101 Muslim men and women, 41 imams and 70 community leaders and specialists about their uses of Islamic law in everyday life. (About a quarter of the respondents live in Canada, but MacFarlane found no significant difference between the Canadian and American responses.)

MacFarlane asked the respondents whether they thought American courts should apply Islamic law to non-Muslims in the legal system. All of them said no.

Three imams out of the 41 interviewed said they wanted a parallel Islamic family tribunal where Muslims could go to sort out their legal problems. But this idea was unpopular with every other respondent, who were content with the separate and secular civil court system. The study's sample was not random, and MacFarlane's findings are not generalizable to the American Muslim community as a whole. But the research still offers a rare look into Muslim attitudes about sharia.

MacFarlane began her research after a small group of Muslims in Toronto petitioned the government in 2003 to set up a separate Islamic family tribunal where Muslims could get binding legal decisions on family law issues. (The city already had such a tribunal for Catholic and Jewish Canadians.) The request--which ultimately was denied--sparked protests in Canada as well as in far-off London, Vienna and Paris. Protesters said the tribunal would violate the separation of church and state. In America, a well-organized network of experts warn of the threat of "creeping sharia," whereby American Muslims--who make up less than 1 percent of the population--attempt to infiltrate courts with Islamic law.

Most of the Muslims MacFarlane interviewed use religious law for family issues such as divorce, marriages, and inheritances in tandem with the regular court system, not instead of it. She focused her research on Muslims who are divorced, interviewing 101 people in that situation. Ninety-five percent of those 101 people said they signed both a nikah, or religious marriage contract, as well as a civil marriage license. Those who had a legal marriage also all formally divorced in courts, after receiving religious permission to do so from an imam. Some imams would not grant a religious divorce until the couple first brought in the civil divorce decree.

"For most American Muslims, sharia represents a private system of morality and identity, primarily focused on marriage and divorce rituals," MacFarlane writes.

Most of the people who signed only a nikah, and not a civil marriage document, were recent immigrants to North America, MacFarlane told Yahoo News. (A nikah-only marriage is not recognized as legal in North America.) In a handful of cases, nikah-only marriages were used when a man was already married and wanted to have multiple wives. Some imams tolerated or encouraged this informal bigamy, MacFarlane says.

MacFarlane's sample isn't representative of the Muslim community as a whole. About 75 percent of the respondents were immigrants to America or Canada, and nearly all of them had at least a college degree. Half were of South Asian descent, 30 percent of Middle Eastern descent, and 10 percent of African descent. The remaining 10 percent were Caucasian converts and African Americans. (African Americans are estimated to make up about 35 percent of the total American Muslim population.)

MacFarlane's findings will be published in a book by Oxford University Press in April.

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