States Move To Ban Islamic Sharia Law

More than a dozen states are now considering measures to ban Sharia, or Islamic law. One proposed bill in Tennessee has drawn criticism, with opponents saying it would infringe on religious freedoms for Muslims. Proponents of the bill say it's necessary to prevent "homegrown terror." Host Michel Martin speaks with David Yerushalmi, who wrote the policy paper that sparked the legislation in Tennessee and other states. They are joined by associate professor of Islamic and American Law at Boston College, Intisar Rabb.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear what stories caught your ears this week in our Backtalk segment.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about faith and policy. Yesterday, all eyes were on the House Homeland Security Committee's hearings on the so-called radicalization of American Muslims. The committee's chairman, Republican Peter King of New York, defended the scope of the hearings in his opening remarks.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): Despite what passes for conventional wisdom in certain circles, there is nothing radical or un-American in holding these hearings. Indeed, congressional investigation of Muslim-American radicalization is the logical response to the repeated and urgent warnings which the Obama administration has been making in recent months.

MARTIN: So while the threat of Muslim extremism is on the minds of federal lawmakers, the threat is also on the minds of state legislators. So today, we want to take a closer look at the issue of Shariah law or Islamic law.

During last year's elections, you may remember that Oklahoma passed a referendum banning state courts from considering international or Islamic law. But it was later blocked by a federal judge who said that the law was unconstitutional.

Now more than a dozen states are considering similar measures, including Arizona, Indiana and Texas. One version that has sparked particular interest is the law being debated in Tennessee, which critics call the most far-reaching because it would make certain acts under the law a felony. Supporters of the measure say it is necessary to stop homegrown terror, while opponents say the law is unconstitutional and would infringe on the religious rights of Muslims.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called on David Yerushalmi. He wrote the policy paper that was the catalyst for the Tennessee bill as well as bills in a number of other states. He is a lawyer who specializes in national security and he is the founder and president of a group called SANE, the Society of Americans for National Existence. He describes it as a nonprofit public policy think tank and he's with us from our NPR studios in New York.

Also joining us Intisar Rabb. She is an associate professor of Islamic law and American law at Boston College. She's also a faculty researcher with Harvard Law School's Islamic Legal Studies Program. And she joins us from the studios at Harvard University. I welcome you both and thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. DAVID YERUSHALMI (Attorney): Thank you for having me.

Professor INTISAR RABB (Islamic Law and American Law, Boston College): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Yerushalmi, I'll start with you because as we mentioned, your policy paper has been the intellectual basis for a number of the measures being considered around the country. Why is a bill like this necessary, first? And, secondly, what specifically do you feel that the Tennessee bill would accomplish?

Mr. YERUSHALMI: Well, let's first talk about what the bill is and then why we think it's necessary. The bill has been misrepresented by claiming that it outlaws, it criminalizes Islamic worship or even more specifically, that it outlaws or criminalizes the practice of Shariah or Islamic law. Both of those are simply facially false.

The law goes through a litany of legislative findings, which are based upon the knowable and objective statements by jihadist around the globe, that they base their jihad on Shariah or Islamic law.

Now, from there, the statute says that if the attorney general identifies an organization that adheres to that Shariah jihad doctrine and it's either engaging in terrorism or has the intent and the capability to engage in terrorism, that organization can be designated as a Shariah organization.

Now, that part of the statute mirrors the federal statute that allows the secretary of state to designate foreign terrorist organizations.

MARTIN: Well, that was my question, Mr. Yerushalmi - and Professor Rabb, I haven't forgotten about you. But, Mr. Yerushalmi, that is my second question to you, which is, why is this necessary? Why is it necessary to single out a particular ideology when legal tools, presumably, already exist to target organizations with violent intent?

Mr. YERUSHALMI: First of all, states, as opposed to the federal government, have a compelling state interest to protect the safety of its citizens. Tennessee has had a problem of homegrown jihadists. Bledsoe, who went out to the recruiting office in Arkansas, was from Tennessee and as it were radicalized there. So that's number one.

Number two, the statute identifies a specific threat doctrine. In policy and in law, the more specific you can be, as to the harm you're trying to address, the better the law is. And because we have a very specific threat of global jihad domesticized in this country, the statute is refined to just that aspect of the terrorist profile and threat that deals with this particular jihad doctrine.

MARTIN: OK. Let's hear from Professor Rabb about her particular concerns about the law, and then, Mr. Yerushalmi, we'll come back to you.

Prof. RABB: Yes. Thank you. I wish we were misreading what that bill actually does. I want to start off with just the language of Shariah, which represents ideals in common with core American values. The bill attempts to define Shariah as something other than that.

So, to attempt to redefine Shariah as an equation with terrorism and then say that any practice of the authoritative legal schools is prima facie evidence of Shariah as redefined, in fact, does outlaw ordinary practices of Muslims following Islamic law and its practices or precepts that advocate things like giving in charity or regulating marriages and divorces in the religious sphere, which goes along with the state sphere as it's practiced in America.

MARTIN: Well, give an example, Professor Rabb, of what your concern would be -how this might actually work in real life if the law were to pass constitutional muster. What's your concern about how it could potentially work?

Prof. RABB: It, by its terms, would outlaw practices like Muslims going to a mosque to get married according to their religious beliefs and solemnizing that according to the state. The state part would be fine, but not the marriage contract as concluded according to Islamic law. Or...

MARTIN: What about the...

Prof. RABB: ...giving charity...

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that - the material support part. Give an example of why you think that that's problematic. Because a lot of people would argue, what's the problem with saying that you can't give money to terrorist organizations? That there's already material support clauses in American law. What's different about this?

Prof. RABB: What is different? I'm not sure what is different about this bill, where Tennessee feels that it - or the legislators in Tennessee believe that they need to have a material support clause that defines Shariah as terrorism. So I think we need to clarify the terms here. Shariah is not equivalent to terrorism. It's not equivalent to whatever we choose to have it mean, like some Humpty Dumpty character.

MARTIN: And so is your concern - I need you to focus on - sorry, I need you to focus on your concerns about the law. Is your concern that this law then equates Shariah law with terrorism? Is that your concern?

Prof. RABB: Yes, that's the main concern, that it misrepresents what Shariah is, equates it with terrorism and criminalizes ordinary lawful and socially desirable practices of Muslims, in particular in America, in Tennessee.

MARTIN: Mr. Yerushalmi, could you speak to that?

Mr. YERUSHALMI: Yeah. Well, it's just patently false. I don't know what law she's reading. The law does not even criminalize the absolute practice of Shariah. In fact, you could go to Times Square and you could print out: I advocate Shariah, I even advocate, in theory, jihad against America and my statute does not touch you. The statute says the attorney general simply designates someone who practices a Shariah with terrorism component. Period. End of discussion.

MARTIN: Can I, though...

Mr. YERUSHALMI: Shariah...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. YERUSHALMI: I'm sorry. But this is also a statute that defined its terms. It's not saying, and I've read an interview two days ago by Professor Rabb on "Setting the Record Straight on Sharia" and she addresses it. She makes the same statement there.

But what she's saying is that in more general terms, it might be of interest to your audience, is that Shariah has nothing to do with jihad or that it's not simply jihad. But here's the problem. Every place where you look out into the world where it is authoritative law, includes aspects of jihad, death for blasphemy. These laws are well known. But...

Prof. RABB: Well, can I speak to that, since I do study Shariah?

MARTIN: Well, just a minute, let him finish. Let him finish.

Mr. YERUSHALMI: Now, what Professor Rabb says is that, well, Shariah can be to the individual whatever the individual wants, and I agree. To an individual like Professor Rabb, it's a personal, pietistic relationship to the divine. That's fine with us. And the statute doesn't speak to that Shariah.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about a series of bills seeking to ban the use of Shariah law or Islamic law in U.S. courts. We're taking a particular focus on a law being debated in Tennessee. We're speaking with David Yerushalmi. He is the author of a policy paper that's influenced a number of these bills.

Also with us, Intisar Rabb. She is an associate professor of Islamic law and American law at Boston College.

Mr. Yerushalmi, forgive me, I think that our conversation has been civil and on the facts, and I appreciate that, but I do feel I have to ask you this, that you have been labeled - and I realize that name calling should not be a part of this conversation and it has not been, but I do feel a responsibility to ask -a left-leaning magazine, Mother Jones, has called you a white supremacist.

And it cites a quote, which it says comes from your organization's website, saying, quote, "There is a reason the Founding Fathers did not give women or black slaves the right to vote." And the implication - well, you were also quoted in this article, in a commentary calling for a, quote, "war on Islam." So the implication here is that this is motivated by a view that Islam on its face is a violent and inferior religion and its adherents are predisposed to violence and so forth. And I feel a responsibility to ask you to address that, if you would.

Mr. YERUSHALMI: OK. The Mother Jones article is simply defamatory and it's false. I am - certainly can't be a white supremacist, only because I'm an orthodox Jew, and I will be the first to die at the hands of these people if they ever have power or a gun to my head. So that's absurd. Further, the quote they take that talks about what the Founding Fathers did was precisely an open criticism and question about those individuals who hold the Founding Fathers up in absolute esteem - we've built monuments to them - refuse to address the problem that these men denied African-Americans and they denied women the fundamental right of representative government.

He simply takes the question and makes it a statement, as if it were mine. What is the basis for what they did? They certainly had a reason. They were either racist, misogynist, chauvinistic, or they had some other reason. But you have to confront that. And the Mother Jones is entirely an attack upon me with links to articles that don't say what they claim I said. Where they call me a white supremacist based on an essay they said that I stated that whites are racially superior to blacks, which is an absurdity. And I've never written or said any such thing.

MARTIN: Mr. Yerushalmi, I respect you. I appreciate this. I do think the question that needs to be asked, and I appreciate your candor in this matter, the question, however, is - is your view of this measure motivated in part by a view that Islam is inherently violent and that its adherents are inherently predisposed to violence because of their commitment to religious Islam?

Mr. YERUSHALMI: No.

MARTIN: That would be the question.

Mr. YERUSHALMI: And again, I have represented pro bono Muslim-Americans. I have stated on the record, the pietistic worship of the divine through Islamic worship, Jewish worship, Christian worship, atheistic worship or humanistic, is protected and absolutely sacrosanct in our system. What I have said is that the Islam that we're speaking about is the Shariah-driven jihad-based Islam that all of the global jihadists espouse.

MARTIN: Professor, sorry, we're going to lose your lines in five minutes. So Professor, that's why I'm pushing you along. That's the only reason. Professor Rabb?

Prof. RABB: Yes, I'd like to speak to a few of these things. I mean, we've heard about a codification of Shariah, and that's partly the point. There is no codification of Shariah. There is an attempt to codify a single code of Islamic law very early on in the 8th and 9th centuries, and that was rejected. And ever since, Islamic law has been characterized by a tremendous amount of diversity, and we can't point to any one code.

That said, we don't have Islamic law as a part of American constitutional law, nor do we seek to have Islamic law as a part of American constitutional law. So we're looking at two different times and contexts and applying one version of Islamic law to practices in America and conflating - or I see the Tennessee bill conflating Shariah and bandying about that term as if it's some Harry Potter curse or equating Shariah with terrorism.

Why not just say terrorism? Or material support for terrorists that we are prohibiting, rather than modifying it with this term that's defined incorrectly as Shariah terrorism or Shariah organizations in the bill.

MARTIN: OK. We have to leave it there for now. Forgive me.

Intisar Rabb is an associate professor of Islamic law and American law at Boston College. She's also with Harvard Law School's Islamic Legal Studies Program. She's a faculty researcher there. She was with us from the studios at Harvard University.

Also with us, David Yerushalmi. He's a lawyer specializing in national security issues. He's the president of SANE, the Society of Americans for National Existence. He also wrote the policy paper that was the catalyst for the Tennessee bill that we've been discussing, as well as the bills for a number of other states. And he was with us from New York.

I thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. YERUSHALMI: Thank you for having me.

Prof. RABB: Thank you for having us.

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