Letter from America: Fear stoked by fake Sharia threat violates real civil liberties
Emily Badger: Letter from America: Fear stoked by fake Sharia threat violates real civil liberties
19 May 11

Conservative politicians in the US must subscribe to a pretty standard set of talking points to pass muster with the party’s base. Big government is bad, taxes should be low, and guns are a God-given right. Lately, serious conservative candidates — including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — have been lining up to establish their credibility as hardliners on a new litmus test: creeping Sharia law (and Sharia law is almost always accompanied in such political discourse by the heavily loaded adjective “creeping“).

The idea sounds ridiculous but the political calculation is quite clever: It’s easy to appear tough on a threat that doesn’t really exist.

In a perverse cycle of feedback, politicians and talk-show hosts have concocted the peril, then played into citizens’ fears that we need leaders strong enough to protect us from it. The ACLU has counted two-dozen states that have adopted or weighed anti-Sharia laws. Last November, more than 70 per cent of voters in Oklahoma cast ballots for an amendment to the state constitution barring enforcement of Sharia within its borders.

And who wouldn’t vote for something called the “Save Our State Amendment”?

In practical terms, the Sharia hysteria serves as a convenient distraction from more legitimate (and intractable) political issues like high unemployment and rising gas prices. Sacrificed in the process has been a core constitutional value many of these voters may regret degrading once America has moved on to a non-religious internal threat (Mexican immigrants? liberation theologists? climate activists?).

These voters seem to have confused the First Amendment’s protections for religious liberty. The issue is not just that government can’t establish a single religion; it also can’t single out a religion for special harassment.

A sensible federal judge temporarily blocked the Oklahoma amendment in November after a local Muslim-American man, Muneer Awad, filed suit against it. The ACLU is representing Awad, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. As the case goes before an appeals judge, religious and civil liberties groups lining up against the law now include the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“Oklahoma doesn’t need a special amendment to protect it from government-imposed Islamic law,” said Rev. Barry W Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a statement. “The First Amendment already does that.

“I think we all know that Sharia has no chance of taking over Oklahoma,” he added. “This entire incident has been a sad example of politically motivated religious intolerance.”

The ACLU this week also released a new report — Nothing to Fear: Debunking the Mythical ‘Sharia Threat’ — in response to “study findings” from fear-baiting groups that purport to be tracking Sharia’s infiltration into the US court system.

The LA Times, meanwhile, mocked the fear as the “latest case of US paranoia.

“Like the belief that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, the fear that Islamic law will become a touchstone of American justice is delusional,” wrote the newspaper’s editorial board. “What is depressing is how widespread it is.”

Like the belief that Obama isn’t a citizen, this rumour has also been gleefully stoked by politicians. The 70 per cent of Oklahoma voters worried about “saving” their state from Sharia — despite the fact that no cases of the threat exist there — might be wiser to worry about why their politicians would encourage them to infringe on their neighbour’s rights, and what they stand to gain from doing so.