From time to time, people in some segments of American government and society make calls for the banning of Sharia law. For those unfamiliar, Sharia is a body of law that has grown up in majority-Muslim countries based on the commands and requirements of the Koran and the Hadith. It actually varies a bit from country to country, depending on how the local power structures interpret the requirements of Islam, so it’s a little difficult to nail down exactly what it is. But, nonetheless, a significant portion of Americans seem to think it needs to be banned in order to prevent things like female genital mutilation, child brides, and wife beating. But mostly, so that Muslims will know in no uncertain terms that they are officially unwelcome here.
But here’s the thing: most of the stuff that would actually make sense to ban is already illegal, and if Sharia has somehow managed to invent some forms of abuse that aren’t addressed under current laws we have the option to address those as needed. Most of the rest of it are things we’ve generally decided it’s not the government’s business to regulate. You may feel like Sharia’s rules on dividing up inheritances are pretty shitty, but we kind of take it for granted in America that it’s up to the deceased how to divide up his property on his death. Dietary rules are also part of Sharia. Gonna ban people from not eating pork? Gonna ban people from not drinking alcohol? Gonna force people to charge interest whenever they loan someone money? How would that work, exactly, given that many versions of Christianity and Judaism include similar restrictions? Would you ban people from refraining from eating certain foods or drinking certain drinks only if they do so because of Muslim rules but not if they do so because they just don’t want to? Or if they are following (for example) Jewish dietary rules? Clearly that kind of thing is unworkable. Oh, yeah, and it’s also unconstitutional.
Oops! That niggling little thing: the Constitution. Remember the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Do you think, possibly, that it might be a “law respecting an establishment of religion,” to place a blanket ban on all the behavioral rules of a specific religion? Think that might be somewhat infringing the religious rights of Muslims? Perhaps?
Or maybe you’re concerned that Muslims would legislate Sharia onto the rest of us if it weren’t banned. Well, currently Muslims make up only about 1% of the population of the U.S., so it’s hard to see them coming up with the kind of legislative majorities that would be necessary to pull that off. But there’s another little secret you may not be aware of: that’s already illegal. Once again, the First Amendment. Just as the government isn’t allowed to ban people from practicing their own religion, it’s also not allowed to force people to practice someone else’s religion.
I know there’s a grand tradition in this country of ignoring that last part, which may explain some of the confusion. You see, trying to use the government to force religious practices on people who don’t share your religion is the right-wing Christians’ shtick. These are the same people who regularly call for the banning of Sharia law. And it’s a case of creating their own problem, because this is the same group that has been, by leaps in bounds, the most dogged and the most successful in eroding the secular legal principles that would allay these concerns.
After all, it’s hard to argue that American law prevents the imposition of a particular religion on the populace, when it’s your goal to impose your own religion on the populace. It’s hard to argue that people can’t ignore laws that conflict with their religion, while demanding the right to ignore laws that conflict with your religion. It’s hard to argue that religious laws don’t trump national laws, while regularly electing officials who claim your religious laws do trump national laws. It’s in this context of denial that the American Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of and from religion that is the only context where a Sharia ban makes any sense.
So, diatribe aside, I don’t believe we can or should ban Sharia. While it contains many examples of what I would call bad ideas, even horrific ideas, it also contains some that are reasonable and worthwhile and some that are just not worth writing any legislation about one way or the other. It’s a lot like other religions, in that way. In my opinion, such a ban would be unconstitutional, entirely inconsistent with American traditions of religious freedom, and cruelly alienating to Muslims for no good reason whatsoever.