The way supporters of the conservative group Texas Eagle Forum see it, a growing number of U.S. Muslims are practicing “stealthy jihad,” secretly trying to impose their religious doctrine on Americans and form a parallel judicial system, one that could force women to wear burkas or even condone honor killings.
Sharia, the legal, moral and religious underpinning of Islam, is “a threat to America,” said former Eagle Forum President Pat Carlson, who’s running for state representative in Fort Worth.
With the help of a neoconservative Washington think tank that spearheaded similar efforts in more than 20 states across the country, the group last year pushed legislation in Texas banning the recognition of foreign law in state courts, with its proponents decrying Sharia’s “creeping influence.”
It didn’t pass, but some lawmakers consider the issue important enough to take up before the Legislature convenes in January. Last week, South Dakota’s governor signed a bill aimed at preventing courts from applying Islamic law.
This follows a challenging year for U.S. Muslims, who saw the highest rates of hate crimes since 2001 amid a widespread Sharia hysteria fueled, in part, by controversy over the “ground zero mosque.”
In Houston, home to the largest Muslim population in the state, there were two attempts to burn down area mosques.
To combat what they say is the greatest escalation of Islamophobia since 9/11, an Islamic advocacy group has launched a national campaign to counter the “fundamental misunderstanding” of their faith’s doctrine, complete with TV ads and a 24-hour toll-free number.
“We have the right to practice our faith,” said Naeem Baig, a spokesman for the Islamic Circle of North America, which is leading the campaign.
“It’s ridiculous that we even have to address this,” said Mustafa Carroll, executive director of the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “But we don’t have a choice.”
For Carlson and like-minded activists across the country, this is an issue of protecting women’s rights and the U.S. Constitution, which they say are violated by Sharia. Beyond battling Sharia’s influence lies a larger fight against the “eroding” of Christianity while Islam is given “the priority,” Carlson said.
Islamic scholars and many legal experts, meanwhile, say the issue has been inflated for political purposes, reflecting confusion over Sharia. Many say it’s not only veiled bigotry but a moot point — much of the proposed legislation violates the First Amendment.
Last session, two bills were filed in the state House, including by Pearland Republican Randy Weber, and proponents tried to pass it four times.
The Plano-based Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group, supports the legislation on the basis of religious freedom.
“People have a concern that the government through the court system is or will get into private religious matters that the courts have no business litigating,” said Jonathan Saenz, the institute’s director of legislative affairs. “And we want to make sure that we protect the U.S. legal system from the influence of foreign law.”
But existing U.S. law already governs when foreign law may apply, just as British or French law decides in which cases to recognize American law, said Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a law professor at Emory University and Islamic scholar.
Restricting the consideration of foreign law can be detrimental to trade or international movement, he said. A business contract with a company in Malaysia, whose law reflects some aspects of Sharia, could be illegal. A couple married in Saudi Arabia might not be recognized as such in the U.S.
In Texas, Carlson said they restricted the bill to family courts after business groups objected. Ninety percent of cases invoking Sharia law relate to custody and divorce cases, she said, listing two instances in Texas given to her by the American Public Policy Alliance, founded in 2009 to promote anti-Sharia laws.
One of the cases, a divorce, ended in arbitration after a squabble over whether the dowry included in the Islamic marriage certificate was enforceable.