Tennessee’s Shariah waltz

Shariah law, it appears, is popping up all over the nation.

Or maybe it’s just state lawmakers in places such as Tennessee, Alabama and Oklahoma who have contracted recent cases of Shariah fever.

Whatever the case, “shariah” — pronounced sha-REE-ya and lowercased, according to the Religion Newswriters Association’s online stylebook — is generating its share of legislative headlines. The RNA stylebook defines shariah this way:

The revealed and canonical laws of Islam. Some Muslim countries base their legal systems on shariah; their legislators create laws and rules based on the Quran, hadith and other sources.

The Associated Press Stylebook (at least the 2007 version on my desk) uppercases “Shariah” and gives this two-word definition:

Islamic law.

Earlier this week, Mollie shared her concerns about a front-page Tennessean story on a proposed anti-Shariah law in the Volunteer State. In a follow-up article, Godbeat pro and faithful GetReligion reader Bob Smietana reported on a demonstration by forces opposed to the Tennessee bill:

Local Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders gathered near the Tennessee Capitol on Tuesday to ask that an anti-Shariah law be withdrawn from consideration by the state legislature.

If passed, they fear, the law would make it illegal to be Muslim in Tennessee, although the bill’s supporters say it specifically targets groups that support terrorism.

“All of a sudden, I pray using the Koran or the Sunnas of the Prophet, and it’s a crime,” said Imam Yusuf Abdullah of Masjid Al-Islam in Nashville. “What kind of bill is that?”

But Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said Muslims have nothing to fear from the bill he introduced in the state Senate because it targets terrorism, not religion.

In general, I liked Smietana’s follow-up. It impressed me as an evenhanded report. It allowed opponents to claim that the proposed law would infringe on religious rights. It let supporters counter that it would target terrorism, not religion. Moreover, it included actual language from the bill so that readers could judge for themselves.

My criticism of the follow-up would be the vague nature of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders cited in the lede. How many leaders gathered near the Capitol? What specific groups did they represent? Especially given the broad spectrum of “Christians” in Nashville, more specificity would have improved the story. (WPLN reported that a Catholic priest joined the group.)

Since The Tennessean’s initial report, the Tennessee bill has gained national attention. In its report, ABC News gave this background on Shariah up high:

Shariah — which means “path” in Arabic — governs many aspects of Muslim life and influences the legal code in a majority of Muslim countries. But there are many interpretations of Shariah.

In some countries, strict interpretations “are used to justify cruel punishments such as amputation and stoning as well as unequal treatment of women in inheritance, dress and independence,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Radical Islamist groups, such as al Qaeda, go further, claiming that Shariah justifies jihad, or holy war.

But Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Tennessee said the bill is so broadly written that it would make it illegal to be a Muslim. They held a news conference in Nashville Tuesday to denounce the proposed state measure as an attack on religious freedom.

Here’s how The Associated Press got into the story:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee is considering making it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as sharia, the strictest measure yet put forth by a national movement whose members believe extremist Muslims want sharia to supersede the Constitution.

The bill – drawn up by conservatives with ties to opponents of both a planned Islamic center two blocks from New York’s ground zero and efforts to expand a mosque 30 miles southeast of Nashville – would face steep constitutional hurdles if enacted.

Nevertheless, it represents the boldest legislative attempt yet to limit how Muslims worship.

Muslim groups fear it would outlaw central tenets of Islam, such as praying five times a day toward Mecca and fasting for Ramadan.

That third paragraph – “the boldest legislative attempt yet to limit how Muslims worship” — struck me as a stretch, especially since supporters argue that they are not targeting peaceful worship. At the least, a line like that needs attribution. Tell me the source, please.

Fox News interviewed one of the bill’s sponsors, who said he plans to amend it to specify that the “peaceful practice” of Islam is allowed. In a separate report this week, Fox highlighted groups mobilizing for and against against a planned Washington, D.C., rally to advocate for Shariah law in the United States. (CBN News reported today that “Muslim radicals” canceled their plans for that rally.)

Meanwhile, in Alabama, The Anniston Star reported today:

A bill introduced Tuesday in the Alabama Senate would ban the use of Islamic law in Alabama courts.

The bill’s sponsor said the measure was designed to protect future generations from erosion of the Constitution. One Birmingham area Muslim leader said the move was an effort to “demonize Islam and Muslims.”

But no one — not even Sen. Gerald Allen, who sponsored the bill — can point to examples of Muslims trying to have Islamic law recognized in Alabama courts.

“It’s not about what’s happening right now,” Allen, a Republican from Cottondale, said in a telephone interview.

“I’m thinking about 10 years down the road, 20, 30, 40. Time has an effect on these things, and I’m thinking about the future.”

The Alabama story seems to be a straightforward news report that treats all sides fairly. I did have to chuckle at the fact that the lawmaker took the definition of Shariah almost verbatim from Wikipedia — and the reporter called him on it. Then there’s this:

Allen could not readily define Shariah in an interview Thursday. “I don’t have my file in front of me,” he said. “I wish I could answer you better.”


Last fall, I took issue (here, here and here) with some media coverage of an anti-Shariah measure passed by voters in my home state of Oklahoma. The Oklahoma measure has been halted pending a review by a federal court. In the meantime, a state lawmaker has introduced a bill designed to correct wording that has caused Constitutional concerns. (The bill is as unnecessary as the original measure passed by voters, argues The Oklahoman’s right-leaning editorial page.)

Undoubtedly, we haven’t seen the last of Shariah. In statehouses, I mean. And the headlines.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    This is one area where informative news background articles is really, really needed. News articles about Sharia typically have more holes than Swiss cheese.

    I can probably find more instances, but this one stood out:

    In some countries, strict interpretations “are used to justify cruel punishments

    Where is the “in some other countries” section to that ABC report that would balance the sentence.

    And where is there a discussion of what Sharia really says about various practices such as how to pray, how to dress, what kind of food to eat etc? Where is there a discussion about which traditional interpretations of Sharia are compatible with American values and which are not? For example, Sharia-compliant banking is a financing method perfectly compatible with American values?

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    Hi Bobby:

    Good questions. Always wish we had more space.

    There were 70 people at the event, where one of the most prominent Catholic priests in town spoke, along with the head of the local interfaith Alliance. There were more minister than that, but those are the 2 who spoke. Local Scientologist leaders were there as well.

    Also, fyi, Sen. Ketron is one of the bills sponsors. He’s not the author. That’s David Yerushalmi, head of the Society of Americans for National Existence
    He’s a bit controversial.

    The legislation itself labels all adherence to shariah treason.

    “(13) The knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government and the government of this state through the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions by the likely use of imminent criminal violence and terrorism with the aim of imposing sharia on the people of this state”

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Thanks, Bob. I have fixed my erroneous reference to Ketron as the author. I appreciate you pointing that out.

  • http://solomonhezekiah.wordpress.com/ Sol

    @Bob Smietana – Saying David Yerushalmi is a bit controversial with a link to Mother Jones just means that he’s conservative. I think Yerushalmi is a bit goofy at times, but all the white supremacist and misogynist claims about him are even more ludicrous. I have taken issue with his authorship of SB1028, but only because as a lawyer and a self-proclaimed expert on Islamic law, he has drafted a very poor bill, before even reaching that idea behind the legislation itself is bad.

    @Bobby – Smietana’s right. This bill is so vague (and still open to amendment in committees and on the floors of the legislative chambers) that it could end up outlawing essential aspects of Muslim religious practice. After all, paragraph 3 of the findings in the bill say that “sharia is based historically and traditionally on a full corpus of law and jurisprudence termed fiqh and usul al-fiqh, respectively, dealing with all aspects of a sharia-adherent’s personal and social life and political society.” (emphasis mine)

    As both a lawyer and a secondary school religious education teacher, having taught Islam as a subject for a number of years, my professional opinion in both regards is that this is both dangerous and unnecessary legislation. It ought to be a bit embarrassing as well.