Taking Sharia seriously in Tennessee

The Tennessean had a front-page story last week with lots of religion in it. You can get a good feel for the tone of the piece from the headline "Tennessee bill would jail Shariah followers: Proposed law is 'nonsense,' critic says." The story left me confused, however. Namely, while the story asserted that Muslim's private religious practice would be banned if this bill passed, I didn't have the foggiest idea how that would happen. Particularly since we're told that the bill exempts the "peaceful" practice of Islam. Thankfully the online version of the story includes a link to the actual bill. I read it (you can do so here) to find out some of the answers to the many questions I had.

The difference between the bill and the article's characterization of the bill was significant. The article describes Shariah as the "Islamic code ... which includes religious practices such as feet washing and prayers." I couldn't help but think that foot washing and prayers weren't what the bill writers had in mind when crafting legislation. And, in fact, they didn't. They don't mention the terms "feet washing" or "prayers" in the bill but they do mention words that don't appear in the story, such as "jihad" and "terrorism." Now, don't get me wrong, I'd oppose the bill no matter (not shocking news since I'm libertarian), but the bill is obviously an attempt to give Tennessee more legal tools to fight those Muslim organizations that support terrorism.

While I happen to disagree with the means by which the lawmakers are going about it, that's just not made clear in the story. It's not that the views of the bill's proponents are absent from the story, it's just that they're not explained well. We're told, for instance, that they think Shariah can be a "danger" to homeland security but we're not told precisely how, even though the text of the bill itself gives more than enough explanation for why its authors have this view. Here's the lede:

A proposed Tennessee law would make following the Islamic code known as Shariah law a felony, punishable by 15 years in jail.

State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and state Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, introduced the same bill in the Senate and House last week. It calls Shariah law a danger to homeland security and gives the attorney general authority to investigate complaints and decide who's practicing it.

It exempts peaceful practice of Islam but labels any adherence to Shariah law -- which includes religious practices such as feet washing and prayers -- as treasonous. It claims Shariah adherents want to replace the Constitution with their religious law.

Imam Mohamed Ahmed of the Islamic Center of Nashville on 12th Avenue South said Islam teaches its followers to obey the law of the land. Shariah law, he said, teaches moral values.

"What do you mean, really, by saying I can't abide by Shariah law?" he said. "Shariah law is telling me don't steal. Do you want me to steal and rob a bank?"

The story might have had a more balanced tenor if right up front it noted that the peaceful practice of Islam is protected but that anyone who, according the bill, supports organizations involved in "sharia-based jihad and terrorism" commits a felony. It's just highly debatable, at best, and to say that people who practice feet washing and prayer are going to jail for 15 years, under this bill. Unless the version I'm reading is different than the one the reporter had access to.

Basically the bill has a section where it defines its terms. It says that for the purposes of legislation, peaceful practice of Islam is fine and only criminalizes provision of material support to groups that support terror in the name of Sharia (which it defines as "sharia organizations"). So the bill further defines, for the purposes of legislation, "Sharia" as those rules that are said to come from Allah or the prophet Mohammeded that also "include directly or indirectly the encouragement of any person to support the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States or Tennessee Constitutions, or the destruction of the national existence of the United States or the sovereignty of this state, and which includes among other methods to achieve these ends, the likely use of imminent violence."

Don't get me wrong, I still oppose this bill (its definition of terms is but one reason for this) but I just don't get the feeling it's well presented by the article.

By attacking straw men, such as feet-washing, praying and prohibitions on bank robbing, we miss out on an opportunity to explore some very real concerns that people have about Sharia as it's practiced in the world today.

And I'm not suggesting that the reporter should have talked about Sharia laws about capital punishment for conversion to Christianity or the taking of four wives or stoning rape victims, either. It's not that these things should be ignored by U.S. reporters writing about this important conversation going on in Western democracies trying to deal with assimilation of Muslims, it's just that this bill has nothing to do with these examples, either. Rather, this bill deals with jihad violence. A discussion on the merits of the bill as it relates to that would be more illuminating.

I think the way the topic is handled might also give short shrift to the extensiveness of Sharia. Take this, for example:

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, disagrees. He said the bill is based on a complete misunderstanding of Shariah law, which he described as a set of voluntary religious rules, similar to Catholic canon law or Jewish religious law.

It's certainly true that Sharia covers areas similar to canon law. But it also goes much, much further. The implementation of Sharia varies widely, of course, but it's fair to say that the distinction between church and state is a foreign one. The legislation specifically says that it's targeting the political aspect of the Muslim code. (There's so much interesting civil liberties meat to this claim, one that is challenging for those of us who live in countries with Christian or Jewish histories to process.)

The rest of the quotes from Haynes are also great and would be excellent as part of a larger conversation on how to fight terrorism that is religious in nature. I'd love to hear perspectives from across the spectrum about how well our laws are handling this threat. Get classic liberal Judge Richard Posner, or someone like him, to weigh in. In "Not A Suicide Pact," he argued that civil liberties need to be adjusted to deal with public safety vis-a-vis terrorism.

Following up Haynes quotes with someone from the Islamic Center of Murfreesbro just gives us more of one side of the debate. All of their quotes are helpful. But they need to be part of a conversation that isn't one-sided.

Claiming the bill criminalizes peaceful, private religious practice is debatable, at best. Neglecting to mention related federal precedents that recently passed Constitutional muster at the Supreme Court, also might not be helpful.

Since this bill aims to address those who provide material support to any group planning to engage in an act of terrorism (by enabling the Attorney General to designate identified groups and then prosecute those aiding them), it seems to me that a better discussion might focus on whether such aims are reasonable, achievable or present any civil rights barriers.

So again, I wish that this article would have done a better job of backing up its claim that the private practice of Sharia would get you a 15-year-jail sentence. I wish that we could have either gotten a more neutral description of what the bill would accomplish, practically, or at least get the bill's proponents to weigh in on what it would do, practically. And focusing on foot-washing while literally ignoring terrorism -- the clear aim of the bill from its definition ("AN ACT to amend Tennessee Code ... relative to terrorism") to its final page -- just doesn't seem fair.

Of course, I also hope that we'll see an article that takes Sharia's potential conflicts with state and federal constitutions more seriously -- for everyone's sake.

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