How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sharia?


One of the reasons Western liberal culture has so much difficulty grappling with the reality of radical Islam is that liberals think religion, in general, is a quaint hobby no one is really serious about. Islam, however, has a code of law called sharia, which is meant to transcend secular law.

In Muslim countries, sharia principles are either incorporated into national law, the national laws are expressly based on sharia code, or there is a parallel legal system of sharia courts.  That’s not an idea that meshes comfortably with the Western ideal of pluralism.

In the United States, we’re accustomed to decades of battle over “separation of church and state,” which liberals tend to interpret with such severity that they believe serious religious believers aren’t really qualified to hold office, no matter how vigorously they declare their support for the secular religious system. Our academic culture has chafed for generations against the idea that our Constitution was inspired by Judeo-Christian tradition.

During the gay marriage wars of the past few years, same-sex marriage proponents seemed to believe religious Americans couldn’t possibly be sincere about their objections to the new definition of marriage; they were portrayed as cynically invoking religion to cover unreasoning bigotry. There’s a similar whiff of condescension about the way liberals approach sharia law. Muslims can’t be serious about that stuff, can they? Certainly not moderate Muslims, at any rate – and it’s an article of (secular) faith that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are moderate.

And yet, polling finds generally strong support for making sharia the law of the land, in most countries where Muslims live. Support for official sharia tends to be much lower in south-eastern Europe and central Asia, but it’s very high in the regions where all the migrants are coming from.

Polling firms are nervous about measuring sharia support in American and European populations – it’s another one of those data points American hicks apparently need to be protected from by their wise elites – but when the question is asked, support for sharia comes up strong, and seems to be holding strong among younger Muslims, who should theoretically be losing their appetite for Islamic law as they assimilate.

Integrating sharia concepts with Western law is not easy. Sharia’s treatment of homosexuality and free speech have been much discussed, but there are other areas in which the Islamic code clashes with Western legal concepts. You can see the conflicts on the websites dedicated to helping devout Muslims reconcile the contradictions. They make for lively reading.

For example, at the website of the Shariah Board of America – an organization linked to the mosque attended by the Mateen family – a question about the righteousness of paying taxes was answered by a quote from a mufti: “Income tax is an unjust and oppressive system. If a person opts a way in order to avoid or save from it will not account any sin.”

The overtaxed American non-Muslim might be inclined to agree with sharia in this case, but it matters why income taxes are considered unjust. A lengthier discourse from 2012 at explains that sharia states only a few kinds of tax are allowed in Islam: zakat (charity), jizya (the tax paid to by non-believers to their Muslim overlords), kharaj (a land tax), and usyur (basically a tariff against infidel countries.)

Sharia law also has a problem with loans and collecting interest, which is regarded as a form of theft. There are ways for observant Muslims to work around this restriction without disturbing civil society, taking advantage of “sharia-compliant loans” that restructure the repayment system so that no “interest” is explicitly paid, but the lender still makes money, essentially becoming an investor in the loan applicant’s enterprises. Even some big mainstream banks have entered the sharia-compliant loan market, offering everything from business to home and auto loans.

It’s a voluntary work-around that appears to address sharia’s prohibitions against interest to the satisfaction of all involved. (Some advocates of sharia finance maintain that Islamic banks weather financial crises better than conventional institutions, because sharia loans are inherently more conservative – there’s a tighter relationship between loan amounts and physical assets.)

Many of the questions asked at the Shariah Board of America pertain to the treatment of women, in ways that should make “War on Women” liberals turn purple with rage. Sharia is especially rough on women when it comes to inheritance and marital strife. It remains a constant source of amazement that aggressive feminist liberals, ready to take umbrage at everything from patriarchal Father’s Day celebrations to insufficient enthusiasm for female-helmed summer movies, are silent on sharia law.

There are also a great many questions about how Muslims should interact with non-believers, ranging from casual social contact to inter-marriage. In theory, the American principle of free association should cover Muslims who wish to remain insular, but in practice, free association for virtually everyone else is under constant assault by the Tolerance Police.

A common theme running through sharia guidance is that Islamic law either transcends secular law, or should replace it. There is nothing wrong with people voluntarily choosing to live by a strict religious code – that’s another bedrock American principle that’s been under attack for everyone but Muslims, but it’s a key element of our founding philosophy. It becomes problematic when such a code is made superior to secular law, or imposed upon others.

Some of the Q&A at the Shariah Board of America delves into mysticism and superstition, which have no particular legal relevance, but help create a social world alienated from the rest of the American community. These are the sort of cultural markers that intelligence analysts tracking Islamist cells should understand, but if they are prohibited from studying or discussing sharia law, they’ll never understand how it can form a bridge between moderate and radical Muslims.

How are counter-terrorist experts supposed to predict the behavior of radicals, and how can government agencies hope to counter radical messages, if they refuse to study and understand the unique concept of sharia? It’s not like the codes in any other major religious faith.

Islamic extremists usually promote themselves as enforcers of sharia, claiming to understand it better and interpret it more strictly than moderates (who the radicals often denounce as not merely wishy-washy, but apostates, more hated than infidels.)

Many of the radicals’ grievances against Western governments amount to violations of sharia, most famously the ban against insulting Mohammed, although many other complaints are sprinkled through extremist propaganda. By deliberately ignoring sharia’s unique nature and demanding tenets, our government is essentially giving radicals and terrorists a secret language they can use to communicate with potential recruits. The government also handicaps its ability to work productively with moderate Muslims, or even to identify who they are.

Frankly, the track record of the U.S. government picking out actual moderate Muslim groups to work with, post-9/11, is dismal. Officials are routinely suckered by dubious activists with unlovely overseas connections, in part because they treat Islamic law as a secret kingdom they dare not enter. Politicians who love to lecture Christians and Jews on what their faith “really means” are completely unwilling to study what the Koran and associated writings and actual Muslims actually say. Politicians prefer to assume that “moderate Islam” must be the exact opposite of whatever the extremists are saying.

But Islamic reality is much more Islamic than Americans really prefer, and until our politicians and officials acknowledge reality, they will continue to view “radicalization” as a sudden and inexplicable fall from “moderate Islam.”


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