Tennessee Anti-Sharia Bill Not Quite as Advertised, But Still Not Good Law
I finally got a look at Tennessee’s anti-sharia bill. Turns out that the “YOU CAN’T PRACTICE SHARIA!!!!!” angle was an exaggeration. In reality, the bill gives the state attorney general the power to designate an organization a “sharia organization,” which is defined as an organization that adheres to sharia AND practices terrorism. Knowingly providing material support to such an organization becomes a felony.
So, it turns out that you can indeed open a halal grocery store, wash your feet, pray to Mecca, and designate in your will that your female heirs receive lesser shares of your estate than your male heirs.But that doesn’t mean this is a good law. It contains significant problems from a constitutional and public-policy standpoint, and it remainsn a proposal founded in ignorance and xenophobia.
The law is blatantly discriminatory. It doesn’t target terrorist organizations in general, but rather terrorist organizations of a specific religious faith. Under this law, for example, I would not face 15 years in prison if I provide material support to an organization that favors the violent overthrow of government and a return to fundamentalist Christian law.
This runs afoul of the First and Fourteenth Amendments regarding freedom of religion and the establishment of religion; singling out adherents to a particular law is blatantly unconstitutional. And incidentally, it runs afoul of Article I, Section 3 of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits the state from giving preference to “any religious establishment or mode of worship” or “to control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”
Additionally, this law could be used to harass or intimidate individuals and organizations that are otherwise peaceful. If you find, for example, that a member of a particular mosque was also a member of a “designated sharia organization,” then the state has a cudgel it can use against nearly every member of that particular mosque, including its imams and any other leaders. Yes, it requires that a person be “knowing” of that particular organization, but in practical application, the law has strong potential for abuse.
Granted, this sounds hypothetical. But it is strongly within the realm of possibility; it has been documented that shorlty after 9/11, anti-immigration laws were used to detain and harass American Muslims across the country, many of whom were here perfectly legally or who had been detained on technicalities for the crime of being in America while Muslim. If the federal government, with its prresumably superior wisdom and mercy, could so abuse a nominally neutral federal law, what would the state of Tennessee do with a specifically targeted disciminatory law such as this one?
Finally, beyond its potentially discriminatory effects, the law itself is founded in ignorance, racism, and xenophobia. The bill takes time to define specific schools of sharia law as inimical to US interests and the interests of the state of Tennessee, but it unconscionably generalizes regarding sharia and its adherents. Consider this paragaraph:
The unchanging and ultimate aim of jihad is the imposition of sharia on all states and nations, including the United States and this state; further, pursuant to its own dictates, sharia requires the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions and the imposition of sharia through violence and criminal activity.
This erroneously assume that a person who is Muslim and adheres to one aspect of sharia automatically adheres to all portions of that body of religious law, particularly those aspects of it cherry-picked by an American right-winger who has a problem with Islam.
That is manifestly not so.
In the first place, the body of sharia law is ever-changing. While al-Qaida and other extremists certainly adhere to an extreme version that requires them to violently overthrow the United States government, other intepretations of sharia are decidedly hostile to terrorism. Consider, for example, the fatwa against terrorism issued by Shaikh Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. Just like any other ruling issued by a prominent Muslim cleric, this document is founded on principles articulated in the Quran and the hadith. Sharia, in other words. And it has been pointed out, time and again, that there is no “Muslim pope” or other central authority to define what is and isn’t sharia. There are simply opinions of various weight and credibility, from the Grand Mufti of Egypt and Iraq’s Ayatollah al-Sistani to Osama bin Laden and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khameini. So any person, non-Muslim or Muslim, who definitively says “Sharia says this … ” has chosen to present a school of thought that suits his particular prejudices.
In the second place, consider the question of whether a religion’s adherents uniformly adhere to all aspects of religious law. Do all Christians remember the Sabbath and keep it holy? More prosaically, do all Christians adhere to eveyr aspect of Old Testament law laid down in Leviticus? Of course not! American Christians take a cafeteria approach to it, picking and choosing what laws are right, convenient, and applicable to their own lives.
And American Muslims, I suspect, behave much the same. In America, sharia is often derided and ridiculed for having a medieval attitude on women’s right and for the issue of jihad. But sharia covers a number of areas, including contracts and business dealings, inheritance laws, and elements of personal behavior. It is beyond ridiculous to suggest that a person who, for example, specifices half-shares for his female heirs in his will, or who seeks an imam to arbitrate contractual disputes, also favors the violent overthrow of the US government and the replacement of secular law with religious law. Its a gross, unsupportable generalization.
In all, this Tennessee bill is not as bad as I thought it was. But it remains unconstitutional. And the xenophobia behidn the bill is self-evident, codified in its substantive elements and manifested in the legislative findings. The a Tennessee legislator would introduce this bill, inspired by our society’s most prejudiced eleemnts, says something about that legislator’s character. And if he thinks this law would pass, it sees something about his fellow legislators’ character.