TERRY GROSS, host:

Alarms are being sounded about the threat that Shariah law, Islamic law, poses to our legal system and our way of life. Michele Bachmann signed a pledge to reject Shariah Islam. Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have warned against Shariah law. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had to defend his appointment of an American Muslim to the Superior Court against critics who charged the judge might rule according to Shariah law.

Since last year, more than two dozen states have considered measures to restrict judges from consulting Shariah or foreign and religious laws. The statutes have been enacted in three states.

My guest, Andrea Elliott, has investigated the roots of this movement. She wrote a recent article in The New York Times titled "The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement." That man, she says, is David Yerushalmi, a little-known lawyer who has worked with a cadre of conservative public policy institutes and former military intelligence officials to write reports, file lawsuits against the government, and draft model legislation, all with the effect of casting Shariah as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the Cold War.

Andrea Elliott, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about what the perceived threat is, let's just start with, what is Shariah law?

Ms. ANDREA ELLIOTT (New York Times): Sure. Thanks for having me. I think part of the challenge here is that it's an incredibly complex topic. Shariah literally means the way to the watering hole and is more commonly referred to in shorthand as the way. And it is, most simply put, the legal code that guides Islamic beliefs and actions. But when Westerners think of a legal code they tend to think of a fixed set of laws and Shariah is a lot more fluid than that, because - in part because there is no governing authority, no Vatican in Islam.

So while Islam's four major schools of law agree on many basic areas of Shariah, there are many areas that lack consensus and really just this whole spectrum of ways in which Muslims around the world observe Islamic law. And I think one of the key points that's been missing from this debate is that for Muslims living in non-Muslim countries like the United States, there is broad agreement that Shariah in fact obligates them to abide by the laws of the land in exchange for the right to worship freely. So I think those are some of the nuances that have been missing from this public outcry.

GROSS: So you say the man behind the anti-Shariah law movement is David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam. Tell us more about who he is.

Ms. ELLIOTT: Well, he's a complicated character, and he was a relatively obscure figure before all of this. His history of controversial statements has brought a lot of criticism to him, most notably from the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent Jewish organization, but all the while he's managed to stay somewhat behind the scenes as this whole movement took hold. So what was intriguing to me was how this man who is really a fringe figure came to cultivate allies and influence people at such high levels, former military and intelligence officials, leaders of national organizations, presidential candidates.

How did he make that leap? And I think part of the answer is that in person he comes across not as the erratic character that some might expect, but as a sophisticated man who is convinced by his ideas and who has a kind of endless appetite for defending those ideas - the primary idea being that Islamic law poses a totalitarian threat to the West.

So I think if I were to sum up sort of his argument, it's that you can't understand Shariah as simply an expression of faith but as this broader program that seeks world domination, that - as a legal military/political system that seeks world domination.

GROSS: In trying to investigate the question of how did David Yerushalmi become so connected to people in politics and national security, you make the connection between him and Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank.

Ms. ELLIOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And Gaffney himself argued after President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court that Kagan had to be investigated because of her possible support of Shariah law. And he said that he thought that Obama might secretly be a Muslim. So what is the connection between Gaffney and Yerushalmi?

Ms. ELLIOTT: Their partnership began years ago when Yerushalmi, who had just started a non-profit organization that really became his platform for opposing Shariah, kind of reached out to Gaffney because he was looking to raise funds for a study that he wanted to lead that would kind of examine mosques and whether there was a connection between what he calls Shariah-adherent behavior and support for violence.

And so Gaffney really became his bridge to a whole network of think tanks and government - current, then current and former government officials, including ultimately Jim Woolsey, the former director of Central Intelligence. And really they kind of set out together to launch this effort. I mean, I would say Gaffney catapulted Yerushalmi onto a new platform of influence and their aim seems to have been really to try to get people in circles of influence to understand Shariah in this totally new frame, which is to say that it was, you know, they presented it as a totalitarian threat akin to what the United States faced during the Cold War.

And so they, Yerushalmi in particular, kind of found different targets. One was the industry of Islamic finance. That led to meetings that Gaffney set up at the Department of Treasury. And I think those meetings in 2008 really marked a turning point for Gaffney and Yerushalmi because up until then they were trying to figure out how to influence people at high levels of government, but the briefings went nowhere, and so they began looking for other avenues just as the Tea Party movement was taking off. And Yerushalmi saw an opening there in the sense that people were calling for smaller government, greater state autonomy. And so he started to focus on state legislatures, and in the summer of 2009 he began drafting the model legislation that would later sweep across the country.

And so as he was putting the finishing touches on this law in preparation for a rollout in 2010, Gaffney was organizing conference calls with activists and getting people on board from organizations around the country. Groups like the Eagle Forum, Tea Party groups, ACT for America, which is a group that has 170,000 members and describes itself as opposed to radical Islam - although its critics argue that it's a central force in stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment across the country. And ACT really emerged as a key player in this, as did a newer non-profit that began recruiting dozens of lawyers across the country to work with legislative committees or to sponsor the bills. And so then it, you know, it first passed in Tennessee, in May of 2010, and then Louisiana and more recently in Arizona. And by the summer and fall of 2010, I think this whole message had gained new prominence.

GROSS: So what did the state anti-Shariah laws have in common? Like what is the model legislation?

Ms. ELLIOTT: The proposed laws vary from state to state but they all basically restrict judges from considering Shariah or the broader category of religious or foreign or international laws. So it's hard to say what the legal impact of these laws will be. You know, the establishment clause of the Constitution prevents the government from favoring or targeting one religion. The Oklahoma amendment which singles out Shariah has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge pending the outcome of a lawsuit that argues that it infringes on religious freedom. But the three other laws that have passed in Tennessee and Louisiana and Arizona are worded neutrally enough that they could withstand constitutional scrutiny.

I mean what they do is they essentially restrict judges from upholding foreign laws that violate constitutional rights, which critics argue is already the standard.

GROSS: So David Yerushalmi, the man who you say is behind this movement to introduce anti-Shariah laws into the states, you know, at the state level, he says that part of his goal is to prevent, you know, Shariah from taking over. But he's also said part of his goal is to just get people asking the question: What is Shariah?

Ms. ELLIOTT: That's right. I think that's one of the more interesting facts of this, is that, you know, he really set out on what might have seemed like an impossible mission, which was to make this very arcane and complex subject of Shariah a focus of national scrutiny. I mean this is a word that was not even part of our vernacular a few years ago. So just the idea that you could get Americans to talk about Islamic law when Islam itself remains a subject that is so little understood in this country would seem like a tall order.

But the leaders of this campaign really talk about it in a more sort of preemptive way than a prescriptive way. What they say they're doing is that they're trying to prevent Shariah from having the kind of influence seen in Europe, particularly in England, where the Muslim immigrant community is far less integrated and where there are formal Shariah tribunals, where even just recently a group of hard-line conservative Muslims launched a campaign calling for Shariah-controlled zones.

So here in the U.S., among supporters of the anti-Shariah message, there is this tendency to look at England as a harbinger of things to come. And as evidence of that, municipal pools in Seattle, for instance, that have adopted special hours to accommodate Muslim women so they don't have to swim in the presence of men. And those kinds of accommodations are obviously a far cry from the harsh form of Shariah that is practiced in Afghanistan and Somalia, where you can be executed for leaving the Islamic faith or where you hear of rape victims being stoned to death for committing adultery.

But implicit in the message of the anti-Shariah movement here is that asking for female-only hours at the pool is like the first step towards establishing a Muslim political order. And you know, as one prominent Muslim-American leader put it to me, that's why we left those countries.

(Break)

GROSS: So recently New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who's a Republican, had to defend his decision to nominate a Muslim judge to the State Superior Court. Critics were warning that this new judge was going to implement Shariah law. And Christie said Shariah law has nothing to do with this at all. It's crazy. It's crazy. This guy is an American citizen who has been an admitted lawyer to practice in the state of New Jersey, swearing an oath to uphold the laws of New Jersey, the Constitution of the State of New Jersey, and the Constitution of the United States. This Shariah law business is crap. It's just crazy and I'm tired of dealing with the crazies.

So that's what Governor Christie said. What did you think about when you heard this? Did you hear this as being connected to the anti-Shariah law movement that you write about in The New York Times?

Ms. ELLIOTT: I thought it was certainly a kind of watershed moment in the sense that no one in the Republican Party had spoken out against this so forcefully until then. Mitt Romney had distanced himself a little bit from it during the recent Republican debate among presidential candidates when others were speaking in support of it.

But there was this tremendous reaction to what Christie said, I think in part because among critics of this movement there's a sense that he gave voice to what they've been feeling has sort of been lacking from public commentary about this, which is this sense that it is crazy, that it is, you know, coming out of nowhere, that it's extreme.

GROSS: Tell if you think this is a fair analogy or not in terms of understanding Shariah law as practiced in the United States. You know, a lot of Jewish people practice aspects of Jewish law. They observe the Sabbath. They keep kosher. It does not interfere in any way with them observing the laws of the United States, with them observing the Constitution, nor would they want it to.

Is there an analogy that can be made to Shariah law, that there's aspects of Shariah law that a Muslim could easily practice in the United States without interfering at all with their loyalty to observing American law and the Constitution?

Ms. ELLIOTT: Absolutely. And Muslim leaders, scholars, civic activists and regular citizens have made this argument for a long time - that in fact nothing about their observance of Shariah comes into conflict with being American. And these recent - there are a bunch of new surveys coming out on Muslim-American thought in the United States that show that there is a comfort with being both Muslim and American, that the two are not at odds, that they don't see the two as being at odds, and that that applies to - I would say that definitely applies to the way they approach Shariah. And I think that one of the kind of -the driving messages that they want to put out there is that there is no conflict between being a Shariah-observant Muslim and being a patriotic American. And you hear that a lot and I think that that's a really important message that's also, you know, that's important to them that's been lost in this.

GROSS: Andrea Elliott, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. ELLIOTT: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: Andrea Elliott is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. You'll find a link to her article "The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement" on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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