Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sharīʿa Courts in the U.S.: the Debate on Religious Arbitration

The past year has seen the rise of anti-sharīʿa sentiment in the U.S., backed by hostile rhetoric, generous funding and legislation in many states.

Commenting on the current situation, Eliyahu Stern, an Assistant Professor at Yale, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times. He argued that anti-sharīʿa legislation negates the ethic of tolerance, assimilation and alienates Muslim communities. As he points out,
the suggestion that sharīʿa threatens American security is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusation, in 19th-century Europe, that Jewish religious law was seditious. In 1807, Napoleon convened an assembly of rabbinic authorities to address the question of whether Jewish law prevented Jews from being loyal citizens of the republic. (They said that it did not.)
Several blogs reposted the article…I wish more people would heed such voices of moderation.

Some issues at the moment seem to include:

1. reputation -- "Sharīʿa" is associated with barbaric capital punishment, oppression of women, etc. Of course, somebody like Christopher Hitchens might argue that "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said."

2. fears of sharīʿa infiltrating the U.S. court system -- Abe Foxman calls it "camouflaged bigotry," and politicians exploit these fears, etc.

Last month, the New York Times ran a piece on David Yerushalmi, a controversial lawyer who is a major force behind the anti-sharīʿa legislation. (also see a rebuttal to the New York Times article, published in Frontpage Magazine.)

Below, Yerushalmi, explainins the difference between sharīʿa and halakha. I think the video largely speaks for itself...

Honestly though, the current situation hardly qualifies as a genuine debate. As Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter for the New York Times points out, it seems to be more of a shouting match.

One side warns that sharīʿa poses an existential threat. As Elliott explains,
what they say they're doing is trying to prevent sharīʿa from having the kind of influence seen in Europe, particularly in England, where the Muslim community is far less integrated and where there are sharīʿa tribunals.
The other side cries Islamophobia, and/or argues that there is no debate in the first place, since the legal system already allows for other religious courts (under the auspices of the Federal Arbitration Act), like the Jewish Beth Din of America, or Christian arbitration services, to act as private arbitrators in settling disputes.
As they point out, anti-sharīʿa legislation would create numerous unrelated issues, even interfering with Jewish courts in matters related to divorce, inheritance, child custody, etc.

Overall, it seems that the real issue at stake here -- clearly far from resolved -- is the role of religious arbitration courts in the U.S. legal system.