Sharia in Oklahoma
This Tuesday in Oklahoma, voters will face an odd referendum question: whether the Oklahoma constitution should be amended to bar Oklahoma courts from deciding cases based on Muslim Sharia law.
At first, this just sounds like just more right-wing Muslim bashing. Which it is. There is no real Islamic threat to Oklahoma, where Muslims comprise less than 0.1% of the population; if anything, Oklahoma is the land of Timothy McVeigh-style Christian terrorism. I am sure the politicos who dreamed this up are being paid handsome salaries out of the campaign contributions they are attracting. But not all right-wing Muslim bashing is necessarily misguided. Sharia actually is a serious threat to American values, and even though Oklahoma lies far from the front line of battle, every reaffirmation of those values helps.
Sharia is the system of law that developed in the territories conquered by Arab barbarians in the 7th and 8th centuries. To a limited extent, the rules of Sharia are derived from the Koran, which is supposed to have been dictated by God to the prophet Muhammad. The Koran contains only a handful of rules, though, nowhere near a comprehensive legal system. Most of Sharia derives from the “traditions” of the sayings and habits of Muhammad, the overwhelming majority of which were fabricated out of whole cloth centuries after his death. When the conquerors wished to impose the laws and customs of their homeland on the conquered peoples, they did so by claiming that those laws and customs were the will of God, as evidenced by such-and-such newly minted “saying of Muhammad.” The whole idea that the sayings and actions of Muhammad should be a guide for the conduct of others is never mentioned in the Koran at all, which repeatedly describes him as “a plain warner.”
The problem with basing a law on the will of God as expressed through his prophet, rather than basing it on just being a good idea, is that it is awfully tough to change it. Muslims are certain there aren’t going to be any more prophets, so the law of 8th century Arabia is applied in 21st century Muslim majority countries. Just last week, a prisoner in Iran had his hand cut off for stealing – the second time this month that has happened. This was done with the rest of the inmates as an audience, suggesting that future amputations may be carried out in full public view.
In “moderate” Malaysia, women are caned for engaging in sex outside of marriage, and it took an international outcry last March to prevent a woman from being caned for drinking a glass of beer. In less moderate Saudi Arabia, a woman was sentenced to 90 lashes after being kidnapped and gang-raped – because she was in a car with another man when she was attacked. Just last year, the Indonesian province of Aceh changed its law to permit death by stoning for adulterers.
Sometimes Sharia rulings are curious. Earlier this year in Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdul-Mohsen al-Obeikan ruled that if a woman needs to appear without her veil in front of an unrelated adult male, such as a co-worker, she should breast-feed him, because that establishes a mother-son bond to eliminate the need for head-covering. Birthday parties and taking flowers to the sick are forbidden, though, because there is no tradition of Muhammad authorizing them, and they therefore “imitate God’s adversaries.” Dogs may not be kept indoors, because they are “filth.”
Of course, anything that nutty would never make any headway here in the civilized West. At least, that’s what people thought when the Archbishop of Canterbury began advocating Sharia law in England two years ago. Within a matter of months, English Sharia became a reality. Five Sharia courts with authority to rule on civil cases involving Muslims, from divorce and financial disputes to cases involving domestic violence, were set up in London, Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester and Nuneaton; the secular courts of England give full faith and credit to their decisions. For example, in an inheritance case in Nuneaton, the judges on the panel gave the sons twice as much as the daughters, in accordance with Sharia; under normal British law, the daughters would have gotten equal amounts.
Just two weeks ago, the Muslim judge who runs England’s Sharia court system proclaimed that “Clearly there cannot be any rape within the marriage … Because when they got married, the understanding was that sexual intercourse was part of the marriage, so there cannot be anything against sex in marriage.” This carries out a “tradition” of Muhammad, who is reported to have said that “By him in Whose Hand lies my life, a woman can not carry out the right of her Lord, till she carries out the right of her husband. And if he asks her to surrender herself she should not refuse him even if she is on a camel’s saddle.” (That sounds awfully uncomfortable.) British law for non-Muslims has prohibited marital rape, on camelback or otherwise, since 1991.
Still, that’s England, not America. But New Jersey is America, and last year a New Jersey judge followed exactly this logic in acquitting a Muslim husband of the sexual abuse of his teen-aged wife:
This court does not feel that, under the circumstances, that this defendant had a criminal desire to or intent to sexually assault or to sexually contact the plaintiff when he did. The court believes that he was operating under his belief that it is, as the husband, his desire to have sex when and whether he wanted to, was something that was consistent with his practices and it was something that was not prohibited.
It is true that this case was reversed on appeal. It’s also true that the first snowflakes that hit the pavement immediately melt – but when enough of them start to fall, things get awfully slippery.
One country that has the opposite experience, of starting with Sharia law and deliberately moving away from it, is Turkey. For centuries, the Ottoman Empire was the most powerful nation on earth, but it went into a tailspin precisely because of its adherence to Sharia, and the insistence that the Godly course of action was to memorize 8th century law rather than to try to improve it. In the 1920s, Kemal Atatürk’s revolution secularized Turkey virtually overnight. High on the list of changes was the scrapping of Sharia in its entirety, to be replaced by tried-and-true European laws, translated word-for-word into Turkish. The civil code came from Switzerland, the penal code from Italy, and the commercial code from Germany; lawyers were given only a year to learn the new system.
Atatürk’s Minister of Justice, Mahmud Essad, explained that:
States whose laws are based on religion become incapable after a short lapse of time of satisfying the exigencies of the country and the nation. For religions express unchanging precepts. Life goes ahead, needs change rapidly. Religious laws, in the presence of life which constantly progresses, are no more than words void of sense and forms without value. … It is indubitable that our laws, which came out of the changeless precepts of religion and which ensured a permanent place to divine elements, have been the most powerful and the most effective factor which, in modern times, has enslaved the destinies of the Turkish nation to the mentalities and institutions of the Middle Ages.
So if I lived in Oklahoma, I would vote “Yes” on the anti-Sharia referendum. While doing so, I would reflect on the fact that 98 Oklahomans so far have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, to impose constitutions that themselves dictate Sharia law for the people of those countries. And I would be terribly confused.