Taking Sharia seriously in Tennessee

The Tennessean had a front-page story last week with lots of religion in it. You can get a good feel for the tone of the piece from the headline “Tennessee bill would jail Shariah followers: Proposed law is ‘nonsense,’ critic says.”

The story left me confused, however. Namely, while the story asserted that Muslim’s private religious practice would be banned if this bill passed, I didn’t have the foggiest idea how that would happen. Particularly since we’re told that the bill exempts the “peaceful” practice of Islam. Thankfully the online version of the story includes a link to the actual bill. I read it (you can do so here) to find out some of the answers to the many questions I had.

The difference between the bill and the article’s characterization of the bill was significant. The article describes Shariah as the “Islamic code … which includes religious practices such as feet washing and prayers.” I couldn’t help but think that foot washing and prayers weren’t what the bill writers had in mind when crafting legislation. And, in fact, they didn’t. They don’t mention the terms “feet washing” or “prayers” in the bill but they do mention words that don’t appear in the story, such as “jihad” and “terrorism.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d oppose the bill no matter (not shocking news since I’m libertarian), but the bill is obviously an attempt to give Tennessee more legal tools to fight those Muslim organizations that support terrorism.

While I happen to disagree with the means by which the lawmakers are going about it, that’s just not made clear in the story. It’s not that the views of the bill’s proponents are absent from the story, it’s just that they’re not explained well. We’re told, for instance, that they think Shariah can be a “danger” to homeland security but we’re not told precisely how, even though the text of the bill itself gives more than enough explanation for why its authors have this view. Here’s the lede:

A proposed Tennessee law would make following the Islamic code known as Shariah law a felony, punishable by 15 years in jail.

State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and state Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, introduced the same bill in the Senate and House last week. It calls Shariah law a danger to homeland security and gives the attorney general authority to investigate complaints and decide who’s practicing it.

It exempts peaceful practice of Islam but labels any adherence to Shariah law — which includes religious practices such as feet washing and prayers — as treasonous. It claims Shariah adherents want to replace the Constitution with their religious law.

Imam Mohamed Ahmed of the Islamic Center of Nashville on 12th Avenue South said Islam teaches its followers to obey the law of the land. Shariah law, he said,
teaches moral values.

“What do you mean, really, by saying I can’t abide by Shariah law?” he said. “Shariah law is telling me don’t steal. Do you want me to steal and rob a bank?”

The story might have had a more balanced tenor if right up front it noted that the peaceful practice of Islam is protected but that anyone who, according the bill, supports organizations involved in “sharia-based jihad and terrorism” commits a felony. It’s just highly debatable, at best, and to say that people who practice feet washing and prayer are going to jail for 15 years, under this bill. Unless the version I’m reading is different than the one the reporter had access to.

Basically the bill has a section where it defines its terms. It says that for the purposes of legislation, peaceful practice of Islam is fine and only criminalizes provision of material support to groups that support terror in the name of Sharia (which it defines as “sharia organizations”). So the bill further defines, for the purposes of legislation, “Sharia” as those rules that are said to come from Allah or the prophet Mohammeded that also “include directly or indirectly the encouragement of any person to support the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States or Tennessee Constitutions, or the destruction of the national existence of the United States or the sovereignty of this state, and which includes among other methods to achieve these ends, the likely use of imminent violence.”

Don’t get me wrong, I still oppose this bill (its definition of terms is but one reason for this) but I just don’t get the feeling it’s well presented by the article.

By attacking straw men, such as feet-washing, praying and prohibitions on bank robbing, we miss out on an opportunity to explore some very real concerns that people have about Sharia as it’s practiced in the world today.

And I’m not suggesting that the reporter should have talked about Sharia laws about capital punishment for conversion to Christianity or the taking of four wives or stoning rape victims, either. It’s not that these things should be ignored by U.S. reporters writing about this important conversation going on in Western democracies trying to deal with assimilation of Muslims, it’s just that this bill has nothing to do with these examples, either. Rather, this bill deals with jihad violence. A discussion on the merits of the bill as it relates to that would be more illuminating.

I think the way the topic is handled might also give short shrift to the extensiveness of Sharia. Take this, for example:

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, disagrees. He said the bill is based on a complete misunderstanding of Shariah law, which he described as a set of voluntary religious rules, similar to Catholic canon law or Jewish religious law.

It’s certainly true that Sharia covers areas similar to canon law. But it also goes much, much further. The implementation of Sharia varies widely, of course, but it’s fair to say that the distinction between church and state is a foreign one. The legislation specifically says that it’s targeting the political aspect of the Muslim code. (There’s so much interesting civil liberties meat to this claim, one that is challenging for those of us who live in countries with Christian or Jewish histories to process.)

The rest of the quotes from Haynes are also great and would be excellent as part of a larger conversation on how to fight terrorism that is religious in nature. I’d love to hear perspectives from across the spectrum about how well our laws are handling this threat. Get classic liberal Judge Richard Posner, or someone like him, to weigh in. In “Not A Suicide Pact,” he argued that civil liberties need to be adjusted to deal with public safety vis-a-vis terrorism.

Following up Haynes quotes with someone from the Islamic Center of Murfreesbro just gives us more of one side of the debate. All of their quotes are helpful. But they need to be part of a conversation that isn’t one-sided.

Claiming the bill criminalizes peaceful, private religious practice is debatable, at best. Neglecting to mention related federal precedents that recently passed Constitutional muster at the Supreme Court, also might not be helpful.

Since this bill aims to address those who provide material support to any group planning to engage in an act of terrorism (by enabling the Attorney General to designate identified groups and then prosecute those aiding them), it seems to me that a better discussion might focus on whether such aims are reasonable, achievable or present any civil rights barriers.

So again, I wish that this article would have done a better job of backing up its claim that the private practice of Sharia would get you a 15-year-jail sentence. I wish that we could have either gotten a more neutral description of what the bill would accomplish, practically, or at least get the bill’s proponents to weigh in on what it would do, practically. And focusing on foot-washing while literally ignoring terrorism — the clear aim of the bill from its definition (“AN ACT to amend Tennessee Code … relative to terrorism”) to its final page — just doesn’t seem fair.

Of course, I also hope that we’ll see an article that takes Sharia’s potential conflicts with state and federal constitutions more seriously — for everyone’s sake.

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  • Bob Smietana


    Thanks for highlighting the story. We’re hoping to do some followup coverage this week on the constitutional issue raised by the law.

    The third graph of the story points out the contradictions in bill — which says that peaceful religious practice is exempt but labels any adherence to shariah as treason.

    As far as the footwashing and prayer — they are covered in this part of the bill: “Any rule, precept, instruction, or edict arising directly from the extant rulings of any of the authoritative schools of Islamic jurisprudence of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, Ja’afariya, or Salafi, as those terms are used by sharia adherents, is prima facie sharia without any further evidentiary showing.”

    In other words– religious practice, which is part of shariah, is proof of treasonous, violent shariah.

    The Federal law re: material support for terrorism is significantly different than this state bill. The federal law is religion nuetral and targets terrorist organizations. This bill is religion specific.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    The article could better-delinate its case, but there’s this bit in the bill: 39-13-904.(1)

    “…Any rule, precept, instruction, or edict arising directly from the extant rulings of any of the authoritative schools of Islamic jurisprudence of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, Ja’afariya, or Salafi, as those terms are used by sharia adherents, is prima facie sharia without any further evidentiary showing;”

    Could you find a Sunni Muslim that didn’t follow some ruling or another in one of these schools?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Yes, I spiked your straw man post, not MZ. Just wanted you to know who was offended.

  • Harold

    It seems this is a difference in “framing.” The reporter was using the frame of a sweeping law against Muslims in a state where there has been a recent history of anti-Muslim attitudes and the potential for persecution Mollies wants to frame the story around terrorism and not focus on alleged religious persecution. Instead of judging the story on what you want the story to be, wouldn’t it be better to evaluate the story based on the story is.

    In terms of what the story is, this is a balanced story that explains the conflict. While it could have been more specific about exactly how it punishes even feetwashing and prayers, the story is accurate and gives all sides a chance to explain their views (as well as explains WHERE the law is coming from and who is behind it).

  • Darrell Turner


    I’m curious as to why you stated twice in this article that you’re opposed to the Tennessee bill. You occasionally give your opinions on matters discussed in Get Religion posts, although you and the other editors/writers stress that comments should focus on journalistic issues, rather than personal opinions about the specific topics covered in the coverage being analyzed. Can you clarify?

  • Jerry

    Yes, I spiked your straw man post, not MZ. Just wanted you to know who was offended.

    Terry, you were offended by my post? That’s a curious word to use compared to “off topic”. Bob Smietana’s post was part of my motivation. I find it hard to conceive of a purpose for this bill outside of religious discrimination worthy of a middle-eastern country since any specific acts should be covered by other laws and because the law is targeted at one religion.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Yes, I would say I am offended by straw man arguments on the left and right.

    Meanwhile, no reason to quote people on the other side of the argument in terms of their actual fears and concerns? That sounds like advocacy journalism to me. One may not agree with their concerns — perhaps rooted in events seen in the UK and elsewhere — but it is important for journalists to report them and report them accurately.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Perhaps I shouldn’t have. I was trying to make the point that one can disagree with the bill but still focus on straight reporting.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I can not view this issue with equanimity. A legislature taking it upon itself to declare what “sharia” is is bad enough. If this bill can by some stretch pass constitutional muster, what is to prevent politicians from redefining “halakhah” as Something Awful and Reprehensible? Or legislatively declaring that “Christianity is a belief system which holds that people should be deprived of their rights”, blah blah, and proceed to criminalize “support” of “Christian organizations”? Is that so far-fetched, considering recent actions by San Francisco politicians?

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I’m going to stick up for Bob here. The bill targets actions based on Shariah law (which, as I understand it, varies considerably between various religious and ethnic strains of Islam). If someone is legislating against terrorism, they can legislate against terrorism, period. Why would you make a law against terrorism by practicing Muslims and not by practicing Christians, Jews, Unitarians or environmentalists, for that matter? As a journalist I see serious problems with government regulation and oversight of religion at play here. And I think it was entirely appropriate to point out that Sharia governs ordinary religious practices such as footwashing. That is helpful information to readers who know nothing about Shariah.

  • Mollie


    Do you think readers should have been told about foot washing at the expense of being told that the claimed goal of the legislation is to fight jihad-based terrorism?

    I just don’t get the journalistic defense of not explaining the claimed aims of the legislation.

  • Debbie Franzler

    Tennessee is getting their second Gulen Managed Charter School. The Gulen movement under exiled Islamic Imam Fethullah Gulen has 122 charter schools in the USA. THey are sneaky manipulators and have many polticians in their pocket, their schools are horrid.
    Find out why Ex-FBI Turkish Translator Sibel Edmonds calls Gulen “100% threat to American Security”
    Do your research Tennessee on Memphis School of Excellence and Knoxville Charter Academy.
    http://www.charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com list of schools

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald

    Mollie, the problem is that the law as formulate doesn’t bother to specify about particular elements of Sharia law but then goes on to make a blanket ban against it such that, yes, footwashing as religious practice described under Sharia is proof of treason.

    The fact that a badly-written law criminalizing the religious beliefs of tens of thousands of people has gotten so far is worthy of note, surely?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I agree.
    If this atrocity passes, I can not believe that the local Sharia Council, or a bank’s Sharia Advisory Board will escape harassment, even prosecution, just because it does not fit the politicians’ ad hoc redefinition of “Sharia organization”.

    (After all, what POSSIBLE REASON [we will be told] is there for Sharia-compliant financial products, if not to fund “terrorism”?