Sharia, Islam far from uniform

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Fear is never the right reason to make law, or in this case, to unmake it. Yet fear - decidedly unfounded according to agency staff and legal experts including Idaho's Attorney General and lawyer-legislator Rep. Luke Malek - is driving the Legislature's undoing of state participation in a multi-state (and occasionally, multinational) system which protects children, especially children in low-income families.

While unrelated to the bill in question, the fearful utterance of one word - "sharia" - in a key committee caused reason to fly out the Capitol window. Assurances from officials who work with, and more fully understand, the Health and Welfare laws in question failed to revive the bill, which among other things is necessary for Idaho to continue to collect child support from certain less-than-willing noncustodial parents, necessary to follow them out of state if they've moved.

Single parent having a tough time making ends meet? Too bad. That support and other aid you depended on may soon be effectively uncollectible. All because certain lawmakers are ignorant about both Idaho's law, and sharia, and imagine a connection between them. No, this legislation or perceived loophole could not impose or permit the latter. The laws of other jurisdictions to which it refers specifically pertain to child support and child protection. No creepy fingers can reach through this legislation and turn Idaho into a Hollywood horror film.

Getting back to that underlying fear, sharia (pronounced shah-ree-ah) is a broad word. In Arabic it means path, or path to the watering hole. Some Muslims - let me repeat that, some and not "most" - believe in sharia as marriage of religion to state. In any case most Muslims are the same as any other human being and don't condone violent or exported enforcement regardless of spiritual beliefs. Just as "jihad" for most simply means struggle - as in the daily, inner struggles to be a good person - one man's sharia is a form of personal guidance to an ethical life. To others it is more customary or cultural; and yes, to yet another, more extreme man it can encompass the scary, oppressive stuff.

Why so much variation? Perhaps because unlike Christianity's contained Bible, in Islam holy texts are not one, but many. Beyond the Quran (whose pages revere Jesus and other Biblical figures as high-ranking prophets), more recent scholarly papers interpreting the late Prophet Muhammad's teachings are also considered part of the religion's texts. Here is one key to Islam's variation: There is disagreement about which of those are accepted.

So there is disagreement about what is or isn't Islam, what is or isn't sharia. Some schools of thought are more democratic and require consensus of an entire community before accepting an Islamic principle.

Application of sharia to government wasn't specifically prescribed by Mohammad (it developed as a legal concept in the centuries following), so personal, practical, and national interpretations range widely in concept and liberties. Iran's sharia, which is a minority Shi'a approach (Shi'a and Sunni are the main denominations of Islam), is very conservative and ungenerous in civil liberties. In Sunni Saudi Arabia and parts of Nigeria, the Hanbali school of sharia is even more rigid. At the other end of the spectrum is the more modern Hanifi school (found in Turkey, Pakistan, and India) - a more liberal sharia that allows women to divorce at will, condemns archaic practices such as stoning, and is against spiritual control by institutions.

Many Muslims oppose any concept of sharia connected with government, seeing it more as a guide to ethical living. Anything backed by the power of a deity - defined by any religion - is fraught with limitless potential for abuse.

Sharia by any interpretation must not be confused with Islam itself. There are as many interpretations of Islam as of Christianity. Catholics are different from Mormons and both are worlds away from the Aryan Nations, yet all consider themselves Christian. Judging as uniform all who claim Christianity is no more accurate than doing the same with Muslims, especially extremists.

The Islam I grew up with in pre-revolutionary Iran showed as much variety - from "Friday" observance only to those more pious, the majority peaceful and no less or more compassionate than any other persons. In a Tehran school I was taught that Islam condemns all violence. As I explored spirituality I prayed to Mecca with Grandma and went to Sunday Mass with Mom, with mutual support of each. Nowhere in our city of then-seven million did I encounter what I hear the fearful describe, the extremist interpretations which excuse terrorism (and use disputed, supplemental texts to justify violence). While such acts make headlines, the underlying interpretation is exception rather than rule; fear alone drives the misimpression otherwise.

I wonder how offended Christians would be if a Zoroastrian, Buddhist, or Hindu claimed to know more about Christianity than Christians themselves, yet here we persist in ignoring what Muslims say about their own religion. Mainstream and American Muslims continue to share their beliefs in a peaceful Islam, publicly condemning the use of Islam to justify violence, large scale and by more intimate speaking engagements, such as those hosted by Unity Church.

Not that anybody pays attention to what he doesn't want to hear. It's easier to vilify an entire religion, something identifiable, than it is to ferret out responsible individuals, subgroups, and complex motivations.

Humans are no more or less human under any flag or religion. As they say, all poodles may be dogs, but all dogs are not poodles. Extremism, oppressive governments, and fear's substitution for reason are the enemies, not the billions of Muslim individuals who have coexisted for centuries without attacking anyone. If we focused as much energy on promoting human rights and mutual understanding as we do on expressions of hatred and prejudgments, we might actually get somewhere.

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network whose childhood was split between Iran and the U.S. She holds degrees in international studies and law. Contact: Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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