The Role of Religious Law in America: Interfaith Perspectives on Islam, Shari’ah, and the U.S.
Last night, Rabbi David Saperstein joined a panel of religious leaders (Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, founder of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights and Dean Robert Destro, Professor of Law at Catholic University of America) to address the ways in which religious law and American law intersect and to discuss the disturbing trends of state-level legislation that attempts to restrict the First Amendment rights of American Muslims.
Dean Destro provided a useful background to an audience of about 200 by explaining the history of Catholicism in America and the way in which American Catholics have been treated with similar skepticism to that which American Muslims face today.
Rabbi Saperstein explained that the liberties set out in the First Amendment are indispensible, core components of democracy. He proclaimed that “tolerance” is not enough, and that we must consistently work toward a country of fundamental equality in which no one’s rights are different based on the religion they practice. Rabbi Saperstein explained how the state-level legislation that is being proposed in over a dozen states across the U.S. is neither constitutional nor practical (there is no way to ban something for American Muslims, but not for American Jews or American Catholics).
Al-Hibri echoed the words of her colleagues, but also took time to explain some of the basic principles of Islam (while emphasizing that the way the religion has been utilized as a tool of oppressive political regimes is not the way that most Muslims would interpret their holy teachings). This, for me, was the true purpose of the event. It is not a coincidence that the states that have attempted to pass anti-Sharia legislation are ones without significant American Muslim populations. Quite simply, people fear that which they do not know. I hope that, if nothing else, last night’s panel helped to put a nuanced and personal face on the stereotypes of American Muslims.
As I write about last night’s panel, I can’t ignore the fact that it ended on a somewhat sour note, as a few agitated and hostile participants berated our panelists with charged and intolerant questions. But in the face of prejudice I was inspired by the way that each panelist diffused the conflict. Each speaker took the time to address the questioners’ concerns, while explaining that the First Amendment rights that allow them to offend whomever they please are the same rights that treat people of all faiths and no faith equally.