Sharia’s roar is more like a whimper

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Fear tends to make bad law, especially when it’s superfluous.

Yet once again fear — decidedly unfounded, according to legal experts — is driving an Idaho bill designed to forbid what has never happened, and what existing law already forbids.

Introduced for the third time by Athol’s Rep. Eric Redman, House Bill 419 would void any court judgment relying on “foreign law” without federal and state due process and civil rights protections. While the bill doesn’t specifically mention Islamic or sharia law, that was the focus of Rep. Redman’s comments in the House State Affairs Committee, which passed it last week.

No Idaho court has ever based a ruling on such Islamic or foreign law. No Idaho court could do so anyway, with or without this bill.

That’s kind of like proposing a ban on lions to protect fish in the middle of the ocean.

The fearful utterance of one word — “sharia” — caused legislative reason to fly out the Capitol window. All because certain lawmakers are ignorant about both Idaho’s law, and sharia, imagining a connection between them. No perceived legal loophole could impose or permit foreign law, Islamic or otherwise, from superseding or supplanting our constitutions, thus subjecting Americans to Redman’s fears like some Hollywood horror flick. A first-year law student could tell you that.

But to be fair, let’s examine the basis for that fear.

Sharia (pronounced shah-ree-ah) encompasses more than religious rules, and is rife with Western misconceptions. In Arabic it means path. Yes, some Muslims — as in a minority worldwide, not most — believe in sharia as marriage of religion to state. For the rest, it’s a looser term, an ethical guide to living.

Mainstream Muslim citizens of ours and other nations are the same as any other human being: Most people don’t condone violence and oppression, nor its exported enforcement in foreign lands, regardless of spiritual beliefs. Just as the word “jihad” 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 a set of customs or culture; and yes, to extremist minorities these words encompass the scary, oppressive stuff.

Why so much variation? Perhaps because unlike Christianity’s Bible, in Islam holy texts are not merely 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 Mohammad’s teachings are also considered part of the religion’s texts.

But there’s the rub: Different subgroups, cultures, and nations disagree about which count, and which don’t. So what is or isn’t Islam, what is or isn’t sharia, and so on varies. Just as the Aryan Nations don’t represent all Christians, extremist writings (and certain nations’ ruling parties) don’t represent all Muslims. Some schools of thought, for example, are more democratic and require consensus of an entire community before accepting an Islamic principle.

Here’s a rarely shared, key tidbit: Applying sharia concepts to government, rather than keeping it personal, wasn’t specifically recommended by the Prophet Mohammad. That developed centuries later.

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. Anti-government protests in Iran are recurring evidence of its population’s unhappiness. In Sunni Saudi Arabia and parts of Nigeria, the Hanbali school of sharia is even stricter than Iran’s. At the other end of the spectrum is the 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 forbids institutional control of faiths.

Many mainstream Muslims oppose any concept of sharia (or any religion) connected with government. Anything backed by the power of a deity — defined by any religion — is fraught with limitless potential for abuse.

The Muslims I lived among in pre-revolutionary Iran as a child showed broad varieties, from nominal, “Friday” Muslims to those more pious. Most were peaceful and no less or more compassionate than people anywhere else.

In a Tehran school I was taught that Islam condemns all violence. As I explored spirituality I prayed to Mecca with Grandma and attended Catholic Mass with Mom, with their mutual support. Nowhere in that city of millions did I encounter what I hear the fearful describe — extremist interpretations excusing violence.

I wonder how offended Christians would be if Zoroastrians or Buddhists claimed to know more about Christianity than Christians themselves, yet here we persist in ignoring mainstream Muslims’ interpretations of their own religion.

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 sociopolitical motivations.

If we focused as intensely on promoting human rights and mutual understanding as we do on expressing fear and prejudgments, the bases for the latter might finally dissipate.


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network with degrees in international studies and law. Contact her at

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