Last week, Stanley Fish contemplated the compatibility of religious and constitutional law in the secular state, ultimately offering a short review of the forthcoming edited volume Shari’a in the West. “Must a devout Muslim (or orthodox Jew or fundamentalist Christian),” he asked, “choose between his or her faith and the letter of the law of the land?”:
In February 2008, the Right Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, tried in a now-famous lecture to give a nuanced answer to these questions by making what he considered a modest proposal. After asking “what degree of accommodation the laws of the land can and should give to minority communities with their strongly entrenched legal and moral codes,” Williams suggested (and it is a suggestion others had made before him) that in some areas of the law a “supplementary jurisdiction,” deriving from religious law, be recognized by the liberal state, which, rather than either giving up its sovereignty or invoking it peremptorily to still all other voices, agrees to share it in limited areas where “more latitude [would be] given in law to rights and scruples rooted in religious identities.”
Williams proceeded immediately to surround his proposal with cautionary safeguards — “no ‘supplementary’ jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights” — but no safeguards would have satisfied his many critics, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who declared roundly that there is only one common law for all of Britain and it is based squarely on “British values.”
Prompted by Williams’s lecture and the responses it provoked, law professors Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney have now put together a volume, to be published in 2011, under the title “Shari’a in the West,” a collection of learned and thoughtful essays by some of the world’s leading scholars of religion and the law. The volume’s central question is stated concisely by Erich Kolig, an anthropologist from New Zealand: “How far can liberal democracy go, both in accommodating minority groups in public policy, and, more profoundly, in granting official legal recognition to their beliefs, customs, practices and worldviews, especially when minority religious conduct and values are not congenial to the majority,” that is, to liberal democracy itself?
Read the entirety of Fish’s essay here.
Relatedly, see Religion Dispatches for Haroon Moghul’s reflections on Oklahoma voters’ choice on Tuesday to ban the use of Shari’a (and international) law in state courts:
Shari’ah is, for Muslims, the “path to the water,” the texts that normatively define a moral life and the means to God and heaven in the life to come. But Shari’ah is an ideal. Muslims, across countries and centuries, have only ever been able to interpret revelation, producing readings of Shari’ah which are never fully conclusive, because Islam recognizes no central authority to define those readings once and for all. Thus Islam’s decentralization, its many competing discourses, all pushing and pulling around a body of texts that are nearly universally agreed upon — but over whose interpretations most debates never end.
What most Americans don’t realize is that we already have interpretations of Shari’ah law in our country; or, at least, interpretations of the personal, moral and ethical components of the law, operating off of individual choice and will. When Muslims pray, they are following interpretations of Shari’ah. Fasting in Ramadan. Giving in charity. Even a smile, the Prophet Muhammad said, is charity.
So what this means in real terms is entirely beyond me, but I am amused that Oklahomans would consider this threat enough to pass a law, to head off — and I can’t believe this is the case — the looming Islamization of the West. Apparently, it will begin in the center of the country. About all this guarantees is that the booming Halal food market may be a no-go area, and the rapid growth of Islamic finance as a global industry will just have to pass Oklahoma by.
As a discourse, Shari’ah law has become far more globally significant due to the warnings of persons like Geert Wilders and other alarmists; now, apparently, we can add the people of Oklahoma to that list. What is happening to our America? Why are we so afraid of an abstract Islam, far beyond the ability of extremists and radicals to harm us?
Read the rest of Moghul’s piece here.