Anti-Sharia movement fuels bigotry

Nearly a decade after the events of 9/11, the backlash against Islamic Americans shows signs of worsening. Not even the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this year has had much impact on the growing anxiety of those who can't seem to distinguish between mainstream practitioners of a religion and the relatively small number of extremists who commit acts of terror in its name.

This is not a matter of political correctness. Americans are justified in their concerns over violent religious fundamentalists. It would be foolish for them not to be. But there has clearly been an organized effort in this country to raise public alarm over Sharia, the religious code the informs Muslim belief and behavior, and that development is something altogether different and distressing.


This anti-Sharia movement would have Americans believe that the Islamic Code holds all Muslims hostage and calls their basic loyalties into question. The ugly opposition to the Islamic center near ground zero in New York is but one example of how misinformation and false assumptions can be whipped up into frenzy.

Last month, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was stunned by the public response to his decision to appoint Sohail Mohammed, a lawyer who defended Muslims detained after the Sept. 11 attack, to the bench. The opposition's beef? Not merely that he defended people who were proven innocent but the assumption that he would somehow impose Sharia in his courtroom.


Lest anyone dismiss such bigotry as a merely a New York-New Jersey trend, there are ample examples from around the country. Last year, voters in Oklahoma overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that bans the use of Islamic law in court. More than two dozen states are considering similar restrictions.

Had any of these states targeted other religions — banning enforcement of Jewish kosher restrictions, for example — it would be immediately dismissed as anti-Semitic or worse. But bigotry against followers of Islam appear to hit a blind spot for many.

That's no endorsement of Sharia. But to insist that states must amend their constitutions to keep judges from imposing these specific religious beliefs in their decisions is to ignore the U.S. Constitution's own instructions on the broader subject of church and state. The First Amendment's prohibition on state establishment of religion already prevents Sharia as the basis of U.S. law, just as surely as it prevents courts from relying on the Talmud or the Bible to make decisions.

But what these efforts to target Sharia do is to single out one particular religion for official disapproval, and that violates the Constitution just as surely as establishing religious law would. The only possible explanation of this unconstitutional discrimination is to trade on public fears. And there is no more distressing example of this than the movement to get Republican presidential candidates to pledge opposition to Sharia, something several have already agreed to do.

This anti-Islamic fervor is a dangerous business. A fear of Muslims taking over Western governments is exactly the kind of anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic ideology spouted by Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian man accused of killing 76 people in a downtown Oslo bombing and shooting spree on Utoya Island.

Maryland has so far been fortunate not to have attracted the kind of demagoguery that has plagued Europe. But the movement is young and it's hardly beyond the pale to anticipate some ambitious right-wing lawmaker introducing an anti-Sharia bill in the next General Assembly session.

What the country needs right now is to regain a bit of our own sanity and not start passing laws to address problems that don't exist — or to discriminate against fellow Americans. And shame on those politicians who would exploit the electorate's wariness of Islam for personal advancement and foster hatred of innocent Americans.