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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More on Bills Targeting Foreign Law: Kansas, Oklahoma and Florida


In Kansas, some members of the Catholic community have expressed concern that SB 79 could lead to interference in the operations of the Catholic Church. Elaborated Michael Sean Winters in a recent editorial, "if a group of parishioners decide they do not like their pastor and, having raised the money to build their church building, take the bishop to court asking for control of the church building, will the courts of Kansas say that the cannon law of the Church has no bearing on the case?"  He continued, "after all, the current Code was signed by Pope John Paul II and the Vatican is a 'foreign jurisdiction.'"

Proponents of the SB 79 have repeatedly made assurances to the contrary; section 7 of the bill addresses such concerns, to a certain extent.


In Oklahoma, another bill banning foreign law recently failed to pass. Senator Dan Newberry (R-Tulsa) authored Senate Bill 671, which prohibits foreign law from being practiced in Oklahoma courts. “Our legal code is much more than just a series of rules and procedures – it is the expression of our unifying principles,” said Newberry last week in an Oklahoma State Senate press release.

He continued, “our laws reflect our values and ideals, and those who embrace and wish to protect those values should be pleased by this bill’s passage. It’s simple - either you wish to see our law used to determine court rulings, or you think it’s appropriate for foreign law to excuse or justify crime in our state.”

In the end, SB 671 passed in the Senate, but was not heard in the House. Newberry expressed disappointment at that outcome, but vowed to reintroduce the bill next year. He suggested that the SB 671 is not discriminatory. "This bill says that no international or religious law can be used when deciding a court case in the state of Oklahoma. So it doesn't limit it to just sharīʿa law," he said.

Florida and elsewhere

In Florida, Senator Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) introduced SB 1360, which blocked foreign law; the latter bill failed to pass this March. However, Hays said that he will reintroduce a similar bill next year.

Bills prohibiting the practice of foreign law remain under consideration and could be theoretically passed in 2012 Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Reactions: Kansas Governor Signs Anti-Foreign Law Bill

On Friday, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback announced that he had signed HB 79, a bill which prohibits any foreign laws (implicitly sharīʿa) from being applied in American courts. HB 79, which was already approved by the state legislature, will become effective on July 1st.

"The bill," elaborated Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the Communications Director/Press Secretary for the Office of Governor Sam Brownback, "makes it clear that Kansas courts will rely exclusively on the laws of our state and our nation when deciding cases and will not consider the laws of foreign jurisdictions."

Seal of the State of Kansas (Wikimedia Commons).
She continued, "this disturbing recent trend of activist judges relying upon the laws of other nations has been rejected by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the Kansas House and Senate."

The American Public Policy Alliance (APPA) hailed the signing as a victory, adding that HB 79 is in no way discriminatory. Rather, it protects values like freedom of speech, religion and ensures equal treatment under the law.

Added APPA spokesman Stephen Gele, who insisted that HB 79 is constitutional, "the bill should provide protection for Kansas citizens from the application of foreign laws. The bill does not read in any way, to be discriminatory against any religion." (For an ongoing case cited by APPA as evidence of the need for HB 79, click here).

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) denounced the bill, cited bigotry, discrimination, and demonization of Muslims; furthermore, argued CAIR, supporters of HB 79 frequently alluded to sharīʿa as a main concern despite the fact that it is not mentioned by name in the bill. The CAIR promised to challenge HB 79 in the future.

Other concerns, as we have seen in other states where anti-sharīʿa legislation was proposed, are related to how HB 79 will affect carrying out marriages, wills, burials as well as international business and contracts with multinational corporations. One provision of HB 79 that could be said to address this concern is the fact that it bans only foreign laws "that would not grant the parties the same fundamental liberties, rights and privileges granted under the United States and Kansas Constitutions."

However, it is not clear whether HB 79 will provide protect citizens' rights, or discourage foreign businesses from operating in a perceived intolerant and discriminatory environment in Kansas. Overall, the bill remains controversial. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bill to Ban Foreign Laws Approved by Kansas Legislature

The bill, known as SB 79, was approved in the Kansas House and Senate earlier in May. Its text resembles other anti-sharīʿa bills that I have written about, which draw on model legislation proposed by the American Laws for American Courts organization; the main provision of SB 79 prohibits any foreign laws from being practiced in Kansas.

The Kansas State Capitol (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

SB 79, summarizes Gavel to Gavel, defines 'foreign law,' 'legal code' or 'system' as "any law, legal code or system of a jurisdiction outside of any state or territory of the United States, including, but not limited to, international organizations and tribunals and applied by that jurisdiction’s courts, administrative bodies or other formal or informal tribunals."

One reason the bill passed by a wide margin was that it does not explicitly single out a particular religion.

Currently, SB 79 awaits the signature of Governor Sam Brownback; he has until Friday May 25th to sign it. He also has the option of a veto, which groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) have lobbied for. Even if Governor Brownback signs the bill, it is not clear whether it will stand or will later be struck down by higher courts.

Supporters of SB 71

Supporters of SB 71 like Rep. Peggy Mast (R-Emporia) argue that it protects women and children from unfair treatment and the intolerance of the sharīʿa. "I find sharīʿa law to take away all the rights of women," said Senator Susan Wagle (R-Wichita)."They stone women to death in countries that have sharīʿa law, they [women] have no rights in court, female children are treated brutally.  In this great country of ours and in the state of Kansas, women have equal rights."

As in other states, supporters of SB 79 argue that American courts must be protected from the encroachment of foreign laws; thus the bill is not aimed at discriminating against Muslims. "We don't have any intolerance in this bill. Nobody's stripped of their freedom of religion. This is talking about the law, American law, American courts," said Senator Ty Masterson (R-Andover).

An example of threatening foreign laws cited in the debate on the bill was as follows. In Sedgwick County, Hussein Hamdeh, a Professor of Physics at Wichita State University, filed for divorce from his wife in November 2010, and asked the court to honor a sharīʿa-based prenuptial agreement; according to the terms of this agreement, his wife was to receive a $5,000 compensation payment from him, which would cover any outstanding claims that she would have on his property.

David Yerushalmi, a lawyer behind many of the anti-sharīʿa bills, expressed his support for the legislation, in an interview with media personality Ezra Levant (below).

Opponents of SB 71

Opponents cited discrimination and unfairly singling out the sharīʿa."I believe this bill is unconstitutional (and) intolerant," said Senator Tim Owens (R-Overland Park). "I think this bill will set Kansas out as a place not to go if you believe any other way than particularly a very small religious-right perspective […]. This country is based on freedom. And it isn't 'you can only be free if you think like me'." 

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) has denounced SB 79, and held a press conference along with the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim American Society in front of the Capitol Building last Friday in Topeka to lobby the governor to veto it (below).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Miral Al-Tahawy's "Brooklyn Heights"

This semester I read Miral Al-Tahawy's Brooklyn Heights (2010, Arabic) as part of my (4th year) media Arabic class. I struggled at first to decrypt the plethora of unknown Arabic words that I encountered in each chapter, but by the end of the novel, as I became accustomed to al-Tahawy's writing style and the plot of the novel, the reading process became smoother and I was able to deduce words from their contexts more easily. The main point here was that it was a great exercise for improving my Arabic reading comprehension, to force myself to start reading more naturally rather than trying in vain to look up every unknown word in the dictionary.

Above: front cover of the Arabic edition of Brooklyn Heights. 
The novel sketches a portrait of some diverse immigrant communities in Brooklyn. The main character in the novel, Hind, based on al-Tahawy's experiences during a stay in the U.S., has recently arrived in Brooklyn from Egypt with her young son; the novel alternates between Hind's experiences in Brooklyn with flash backs to her childhood memories in Egypt.

Hind struggles with feelings of loneliness, self-loathing, despair, depression, anxiety and often struggles to make meaningful connections with others. Hind is stubborn and talented; her personality was shaped in part by a difficult relationship she had with some members of her family during her childhood.

Brooklyn Heights won the 2010 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, which has been awarded every year since 1996 by the American University of Cairo Press to honor the most outstanding "contemporary novel published in Arabic (but not yet in English)." In her acceptance speech for receiving the award, al-Tahawy cited Mahfouz as an influence to her writing.

Al-Tahawy grew up in a Bedouin village in the Nile Delta. She has also published the novels The Tent (1998), Blue Aubergine (2006) and Gazelle Tracks (2008), as well as a collection of short stories.

In sum, I highly recommend this novel. For NYU students, click here for the Arabic version; the novel was also translated into English in 2011. Check out Arabic editions of her other works here

Friday, May 4, 2012

Arab Spring Carpets

This will be my last blog post for the Spring. Thank you my dear readers (all seven three of you). Stay tuned for the fall return...oh the suspense!

I'll end on a colorful note as part of my effort to insert more color to this blog. Beloved "Arab Fall" and "Arab Spring" carpets by talented and avant-garde Lebanese designers bokja.

From the designers' words to your eyes:

Bokja’s map of the “Arab Fall” interweaves imported jeans as a backdrop for the sad reality of an Arab world where imported fads and fast foods have replaced timeless traditions and native delicacies: 

That was then, this is now in the hopeful season of the Arab uprisings: 

The flying elephant serves as a reminder of all the inane slogans that have been forced upon generations of an incredulous citizenry across the region.
It is this awakening that delineates Bokja’s Arab Spring map.
The background is an old valuable carpet (representing our core values) that should be the basis of any new start.
The carpet is in a dilapidated state, like many of our discarded ideals and is in need of resurrection.
The mood is that of optimism and rejuvenation.
The symbols are many, among them a woman riding a horse on the road to a new and unknown world.
If I could say a word the Spring carpet is, of course, awesome...an artistic tapestry and momento in offering to this propitious time in the Arab world when the Arabs have staked a claim to their dignity, proud of their ancient heritage, as the wellspring for their collective future. 
What I like best is the rooster raised forth from Tunisia as the crying call to the Arabs...the home of the Arab uprisings. 
And Handala. The little Palestinian refugee symbolizing (for me, anyhow) that the Arab uprisings, the Arab fight for dignity and freedom, will not be complete until freedom for the Palestinians has be achieved...until the refugees return...until the world stops turning its back on Handala. 
Neat carpets!