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Letter from the Editor

John L. Esposito, Editor in Chief

One of the most renowned scholars in the field of Islamic studies in the United States, Editor in Chief John L. Esposito provides a regular commentary for visitors to the site. These letters discuss topics pertaining to this resource and the Islamic world, developments on the site and other issues.

John L. Esposito

Dear Friends,

In April, Oxford will publish Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know, my book which I have written with Natana DeLong-Bas. For many in the West today, "Shariah" is a word that evokes fear—fear of a medieval legal system that issues draconian punishments, fear of the relegation of women and religious minorities to second-class citizenship, and fear of Muslims living as separate communities who refuse to integrate with the rest of society.

A frequent battle cry is that Muslims want to impose Shariah in America and Europe. In the words of Daniel Pipes, a historian who has analyzed what he calls "militant Islam,"

The hardest thing for Westerners to understand is not that a war with militant Islam is underway but that the nature of the enemy's ultimate goal. That goal is to apply the Islamic law (the Shari'a) globally. In U.S. terms, it intends to replace the Constitution with the Qur'an…The Muslim population in this country is not like any other group, for it includes within it a substantial body of people—many times more numerous than the agents of Osama bin Ladin—who share with the suicide hijackers a hatred of the United States and the desire, ultimately, to transform it into a nation living under the strictures of militant Islam.

Candidates in the 2016 American presidential election—namely Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson—have used the same kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric often associated with far right anti-immigrant political parties in Europe . These attitudes also crop up among ultra conservative Christian leaders such as John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Rod Parsley, and Franklin Graham, along with anti-Muslim (Islamophobia) activists, publications, bloggers and websites. In a perpetual echo chamber, they warn of the evils of an Islam and Shariah and a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.

Yet major opinion polls and lived realities, both in Muslim-majority countries and in Muslim communities in the West, paint a more complex picture of Islam and what Shariah means to Muslims, and the role Muslims want it to play in the public sphere. Many Muslims maintain that observing Shariah is central to Islam and to their lives. They see Shariah as upholding the values of good governance, representative democracy, the public interest, social justice, human freedoms and rights, and individual accountability.

These conflicting visions of Shariah as either a threat or a source of guidance and protection raise some important questions. Namely, why is so much fear associated with Shariah? Is it very different from other religious laws found in Judaism, Christianity, and other faiths? Do Muslims in the United States and Europe want to replace Western laws with Shariah law? Could Shariah ever be implemented in the West? Does Shariah pose a threat to Western values?

Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike often simply, and incorrectly, conflate Shariah with Islamic law. Shariah refers to God's will or law: the principles, values, and objectives found in the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet. It typically refers to a personal commitment to follow the will of God, rather than to a codified set of rules. Islamic law, on the other hand, is the product of human interpretation, and of the early jurists who developed the Islamic legal system in the early years of the religion. Therefore, Islamic law is regarded as the product not only of divine revelation and guidance but also of religious scholars' reasoning and interpretation. It is their attempt to formulate a blueprint, for individuals and society, for personal and public life.

The early framers developed Islamic law in and for Islamic empires and societies, not for Muslims living permanently in non-Muslim societies. While it was expected that Muslims (traders, scholars, and others) might live for a time outside the lands of Islam, the expected ideal was to live in a Muslim society. Thus they felt little need to develop a law for permanent minority communities.

Myths and Realities

A 2015 Media Tenor analysis of media coverage in America and Europe found that over 80 percent of stories on Islam were negative. In the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, nine out of ten articles were negative. As a logical result, many have come to the belief that there is a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West and fear a triple threat—political, civilizational, and demographic—that often reinforces a fear of Shariah. In Europe, worries about influxes of Muslim refugees and immigrants, Muslim birth rates outpacing those of "native" populations, and visible symbols of Islam's presence—veils, beards, "Islamic dress," halal meat, and mosques—give rise to concerns about of the loss of native identity, culture, and civilization. Repeated terrorist attacks by those claiming inspiration from ISIS further fuel the fear of a threat from within.

In the United States, fear of Islam and Muslims also focuses on identity issues, within the framework of foreignness and difference, exemplified most powerfully by deep concerns that Muslims, both terrorist and mainstream, seek to impose Shariah on the West. Fear of "radical Islamic terrorism" after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and "creeping Shariah" after the 2010 conflict over building the Park51 Islamic center in New York City, have become widespread. As documented by organizations such as the Center for American Progress and islamophobianetwork.com, between 2001 and 2012, a small group of eight donors contributed more than $57 million to organizations promoting the fear that Muslims are using Shariah to overthrow the US Constitution and legal system and install a radical Islamic caliphate that will punish and subordinate all non-Muslims. In 2016, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley, examined support for radical organizations. Their report, "Confronting Fear," based on tax filings, showed that between 2008 and 2013, a US-based Islamophobia network of some thirty-three groups received $205,838,077 in total revenue to help push their anti-Muslim message through the creation or funding of specific websites, programs and media campaigns.

In both the United States and Europe, anti-Muslim activists and groups, as well as far-right political parties and politicians, have warned of a demographic explosion that would lead to Muslim dominance and an "Islamization" of countries. Concerns about the growing Muslim birth rate and the size of their communities have led to calls for restrictions on immigration.

This demographic myth is squarely overcome by the reality. The Pew Research Center estimates that Muslims constitute about 1 percent of the US population (3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States in 2015) and that the share will double to 2 percent by 2050. Muslims currently constitute 6 percent of the European population, having grown about one percentage point per decade, from 4 percent in 1990 to 6 percent in 2010. This pattern is expected to continue through 2030, when Muslims are projected to make up 8 percent of Europe's population.

Like the demographic fear ("The Muslims are coming, the Muslims are coming"), the danger of Islamization and Shariah law in the United States has also been based on a myth. In fact, no Muslim organization has tried to implement Shariah to replace the Constitution or the American legal system. Yet, between 2010 and 2017, 120 anti-Shariah law bills had been introduced in forty-two states. In 2017 alone, thirteen states introduced an anti-Shariah law bill, with Texas and Arkansas enacting the legislation. Many of these efforts can be traced to a "lawfare" campaign against Islam begun by Israeli-American lawyer David Yerushalmi, who authored the model anti-Shariah legislation "American Laws for American Courts." Yerushalmi has been repeatedly criticized by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union, Jewish groups, and Roman Catholic bishops for his racially and religious charged remarks not only against Muslims but also against immigrants, blacks, and women.

What about the role of Shariah today for Muslims living in non-Muslim societies like the U.S or European countries?

Like followers of other faiths, Muslims can and do fulfill the personal religious obligations and observances (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimage to Mecca) of their faith. But what are Muslims to do about the other areas of Islamic law such as marriage, divorce and inheritance regulations, birth control, abortion, and cloning? As is the case for other faiths, the starting point, in order to better meet the needs of the faithful in modern times, is to ask what parts of the religious tradition, in this case Islamic law, remain unchanging and what can be amended.

A common ground for reformers has been the recognition of two broad divisions Islamic law: rules governing strictly religious observances (such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage) and rules regarding civil or criminal transactions (including regulations regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, crimes and punishments, and issues of war and peace). The former is believed to be binding on all Muslims and unchanging. As for the latter, many of those regulations are based upon human reasoning and deductions in specific early historical contexts, and are therefore capable of readjustment in light of new historical and social circumstances.

A related and contentious question has been whether European and American legal systems should accommodate certain aspects of Islamic law. In America, Muslims, like members of other faiths, can draw on their religious law to govern internal matters and as a guide in family and social behavior as long as they do not violate civil law. To put it simply, survey after survey shows that typical Muslims in America and Europe think of Shariah as the principles, values and religious observances that guide their daily, individual life, rather than something that should be imposed or replace American and European legal systems. At the same time, there are informal or non-judicial areas where religious leaders and scholars are consulted by the President, Congress and other government officials on public issues such as abortion, stem cell research, and health care. For example, many hospitals and physicians today consult with Muslim and non-Muslim scholars on sensitive religious and cultural issues in their treatment of Muslim patients, and some suggest that it might be useful to have religious arbitration councils at the service of the courts to mediate in family law disputes.

But what do Muslims do when in some instances American laws are contrary to their beliefs?

Though some have assumed that Muslims will inevitably resist some of the core principles of democracy, the lived experience of American Muslims has been much different. On the contrary, Muslims have become more politically engaged, while at the same time becoming one of the most educated, progressive, and law-abiding groups in the country. To coincide with this, some of the most prominent Muslim leaders have encouraged them to respond in the same way as members of other faith traditions have: by recognizing the democratic process and pluralistic nature of society and, if one wishes, work within the system to change or improve it. This is, in fact, what people of all faiths—and of no faith—have done on issues such as prayer in schools, abortion, and various civil rights issues. It represents how Muslims have come to embrace democracy rather than reject it.


John L. Esposito
Editor in Chief
Oxford Islamic Studies Online
March 2018

This letter is adapted from an article that previously appeared on the Huffington Post.

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