Everything is a phobia these days. It’s not possible, for example, to have a complex position on the ability of two people of the same gender to marry. That opinion is meaningless because it must be based in an irrational  fear, and thus it’s nothing more than a manifestation of “homophobia.” (Let’s leave aside that fact that, linguistically, “homophobia” means either “fear of men” or “fear of the same,” and thus is a nonsense word that no intelligent person would use.)

Then we have “Islamophobia,” which is supposedly an irrational fear of Muslims. It’s irrational because the dominant western experience of Islam is one long line of puppy dogs and lollipops and gentle sages wisely quoting from the Koran, and not suicide bombers and decapitations and death planes and men with explosives in their underwear and endless wars in awful places. No one is saying terrorism is the entirety of Islam, but it’s certainly a main theme of our modern interaction with it.

I have no doubt at all that the contemporary experience of Muslim people living in the west is punctuated by its share of intolerance and even marred by occasional crimes driven by hatred of what some perceive to be Islam. I also have no doubt at all that the contemporary experience of Christian people living in Muslim countries is marred by a damn sight more (eg, death, imprisonment, beatings, burned churches, legal persecution, and so on). So: no–they don’t get to coin a special word to describe a rare (if not wholly imaginary) psychological condition and then apply it to all their critics.

And by the way, Christians: you may well be tempted to start using “Christophobia” to get in on the act. I’ve come across the word from well-meaning people trying to describe the reflexive anti-Christian attitudes of their opponents. Don’t do this. It’s as dumb as Andrew Sullivan coining the word “Christianist” as a corollary to “Islamist,” and thus blurring the line between people who advocate for faith-based positions Andrew Sullivan doesn’t like, and people who advocate for the annihilation and subjugation of the entire west. We don’t win the rigged game of identity politics by accepting its rules and saying, “Ooooo, me too!”

Nor do we win by elevating one aspect of a religion into a bugaboo that threatens the very foundation of western civilization and jurisprudence. “Sharia” is one of those elements of Islam from which westerners reflexively recoil. It is, in our imagination, a cold and depraved theocratic legal system that has no place is a civilized society. We recall all those stories about women sentenced to marry their rapists, and writers condemned to death for offending Muhammad, and then imagine similar sentences happening in, say, Dearborn. Let’s just go ahead and play The Phobia Game: we’ll call this response “Shariaphobia.”

Sharia is, in fact, quite capable of great evil and in its state incarnations is utterly incompatible with a free society. Opposing implementation of Sharia law in America should be a no-brainer, right?  We’re talking about a religiously-based legal system that would exist above our vaunted American legal system as a separate law unto itself. As we all know, any implementation of sharia in America would mean women condemned to a lifetime of wearing burkas and small children having their hands lopped off for stealing candy, just like Church canon law orders stoning for homosexuals and forces women to wear constrictive habits that make them look like well-starched penguins.

This is apparently what the state of Kansas was imagining when, in May, they passed a law banning courts and agencies from using sharia or other international law. Twenty other states are considering similar laws. I have no doubt many of my fellow conservatives and Christians are cheering these developments as a bold stand for American legal purity and whatnot.

They would be wrong. Very, very wrong. In fact, supporters of this approach are playing into the hands of the true enemy of people of faith: the forces of militant secularism in the world today.

That’s why I was pleased and surprised to see National Review run this very rational piece by Matthew Schmitz opposing the Kansas law and similar actions. Schmitz points out the key issue at the heart of this problem. No, sharia does not grant all the rights guaranteed under the US Constitution, and “neither does Christian canon law or Jewish Halakhic law (or English or French law, for that matter). But why should this fact prevent a court from honoring a contract made under the provisions of one of these ‘foreign’ legal systems if the contract does not itself violate any U.S. or state regulations, laws, or constitutional provisions? Under one reading of the Kansas law, a contract that makes reference to canon law or Sharia — but is otherwise perfectly legal — would be thrown out, while an identical one that makes no such reference would be upheld.”

Exactly. Catholics are in the midst of a fight to define what we will and won’t do as free citizens of this country. The current administration has already made an effort, in the Hosanna-Tabor case, to force a church to redefine what constitutes a minister, and even suggested that it might theoretically be within their authority to define who may be a Catholic priest. And, of course, the current HHS unpleasantness is an ogoing secular incursion into the rights of a religious community.

Current laws already protect people against any contract or agreement which would violate their constitutional rights. Yet citizens must also be freely allowed to enter into any contract on whatever legal basis they choose, as long as both parties agree to the terms of that contract.

There is this fear of “creeping sharia”: the idea that allowing the camel’s nose under the tent will lead to sharia courts meting out cruel justice inside of America, with no reference or recourse to our legal system. This is bold nonsense. Certainly, some heavily Islamicized western countries (such as France and England) may be in danger of this as their Muslim populations increase, but there is no evidence at all that such a thing could ever happen in America, and certainly not based on private contract law.

In his piece, Schmitz cites a specific example:

Advocates for the Kansas law pointed to the divorce case of Hussein Hamdeh, a professor of physics at the University of Wichita, and his wife, Hala, who were married in Lebanon…. Mr. Hamdeh requested that his wife receive no assets aside from a “bride gift” of approximately $5,000, offering as support his interpretation of Lebanese marriage law and the terms of their prenuptial agreement. Neither argument can survive scrutiny. Even under most readings of Sharia, the bride gift does not exhaust the husband’s financial obligations, according to Kansas attorney Ron Nelson, who spoke to reporter Andy Marso of the Topeka Capital-Journal. Nelson added: “The husband’s claims that dower should satisfy his marital obligation are simply his positioning — much the same as nearly every other person who is going through a divorce and makes a goodly sum of money tries to do. But that’s not a sharia question. And it’s certainly not a position limited to men with Islamic beliefs or a Middle East background. What it comes down to is that in any divorce pending in Kansas, the courts apply Kansas divorce and property division law and Kansas law on the support of spouses and children.”

The Hamdehs’ divorce was never going to be decided, finally, on terms of Sharia, but rather on settled American understandings of property and visitation rights. A contract based on Sharia, just like a contract based on anything else, is enforceable only when it complies with the Constitution and applicable laws and regulations. A private contract does not become any more constitutional or legal because of an appeal to Sharia, nor — barring discriminatory laws like those just passed by Kansas — does it become any less constitutional or legal.

Mr. Hamdeh’s appeals to Islamic law should be of no more concern to a state legislature than the exaggerated claims and counterclaims heard in many divorce proceedings. And so the one concrete justification for Kansas’s anti-Sharia bill crumbles. In response to a fantastical need, Kansas has placed otherwise legal religious contracts on an unequal footing with identical ones entered into without a religious purpose.

In other words: it’s a solution in search of a problem.

Catholic canon law is the oldest continually functioning legal system in the world. It can be a fiendishly complex subject, and I won’t even pretend to know all that it does or is capable of doing. It is the way the church manages relationships among its own members and representatives. When you have a vast international organization with complex hierarchical, organizational, and theological relationships, some code of law is necessary for maintaining these relationships. Canon law is the way the church governs itself and its members. It cannot violate their rights under the laws of a nation, but it can define those rights in relation to the church and its members. That is exactly how it should be.

And it is a right we should defend for Muslims as well.

There are all kinds of law. For example, I would never live in a home that required me to belong to a home-owner’s association. These little fiefdoms can easily become the domains of petty tyrants looking to control everything from the color of your house to your Christmas lights. But if I did opt to live in one of these places, and signed whatever covenant they required, I would be bound by their stupid little “laws,” or have to make an effort to fight and change them.

I don’t see sharia as all that different. We’re not talking about sharia courts governing Newark, New Jersey with their own purity police roaming the streets. This isn’t Iran. We’re not even close to that state of affairs. We’re talking about the interactions of members of the Islamic faith who choose to follow sharia as an act of free will, and within the context of a free society.

Constitutional law already acts as a backstop to prevent abuse of these systems, which makes anti-sharia legislation no more than a bit of Muslim-baiting during election season. We shouldn’t play those games with our legal system, and as Christians we certainly shouldn’t cheer as other religions witness the erosion of their rights. To do so would be acting from little more than irrational fear. And “irrational fear” is the definition of a phobia.

Like Patheos Catholic on Facebook!


Photos Confirm Destruction of Another Ancient Site by ISIS
NY Times Joins the Temple Truthers
Is This Synod the Most Dangerous Crisis in the History of the Church?
Who Are Iraqi & Syrian Archaeologists Blaming for Looting?
About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.