Anti-Sharia Fever in Texas: This is How It Starts

The mayor of a mid-size Texan city has emerged in recent months as the newest face of Islamophobia. Aligning herself with extremists hostile to Islam, Mayor Beth Van Duyne of Irving, Texas has helped to fan fears about a Muslim arbitration panel serving the region’s Muslim community. She and her allies have framed their stance as a response to the so-called threat of Muslim law, called Sharia, to America’s constitutional order. The events in this case provide an example of how anti-Muslim sentiment arises in a community and comes to shape the political landscape.

Mayor Van Duyne first became involved with the Sharia issue following the appearance of a right-wing news article about the Islamic Tribunal of Dallas, an organization the mayor apparently took an interest in because one of its arbitrators lived in her own city of Irving. The article, appearing on January 28 at Breitbart.com and authored by anti-Muslim activist Pam Geller, presented a slippery-slope argument. ” ‘Voluntary’ Sharia Tribunal in Texas: This is How it Starts” its headline ran, with scare quotes around the word voluntary.  The article suggested that the tribunal was deviously hiding its true purpose of “creating a parallel legal system” in conflict with U.S. law.

It’s hard to figure what exactly prompted the Geller article since the tribunal was similar in nature to arbitration panels of other religions, allowed under the First Amendment, and had conducted itself without controversy for several years. Established as a non-profit in 2012, it dealt with community-related issues having to do with divorce, contracts, and religious affairs.  The tribunal’s website made clear that its proceedings addressed the needs of Muslims who wished to remain within the bounds of Islamic custom and were voluntary and non-binding. The website noted three times for emphasis that its rulings honored local, state, and federal law.

Nonetheless, in her first public statement on the issue, made on Facebook on February 6, Mayor Van Duyne echoed Pamela Geller’s alarmist assumptions. She stated that she or the city of Irving had never “condoned, approved, or enacted the implementation of a  Sharia Court in our city,” implying that something inappropriate or illegal might have occurred. A few days later on the Glen Beck Program, Van Duyne made specific claims. She stated that the tribunal was a “court” in its own right rather than an arbitration panel as indicated on its web page and that it was “bypassing American courts.”

Van Duyne’s statements, unfortunately, do little to clarify the issues. “Bypassing American courts,” far from being something insidious, is what religious arbitration panels, long sanctioned under U.S. law, have always done. Federal and state courts have little interest in becoming entangled in the religious matters arbitrated by such panels (of course, when asked to deal with complaints by religious plaintiffs seeking redress, the courts do not and cannot apply religious law when that law is inconsistent with existing  state and federal law). As for the distinction between “court” and “tribunal,” the semantics are hardly as clear-cut as Van Duyne suggests. Arbitration tribunals are commonly viewed as the same as religious “courts” applying religious law. In Dallas, for example, a Catholic “court” run by the Diocese of Dallas and a beth din, or rabbinical “court,” operate freely, both virtually identical in function to the Muslim tribunal (which could also call itself a “court” if it wanted) a few miles away.

If Van Duyne’s response to the Muslim case in Dallas is ill-informed, it is not isolated or unusual. Van Duyne knows she can count on ample support from others in her area hostile to Islam. Most notably, she has reinforcement from the Texas legislature, dominated by conservative Republicans, which is now considering a restrictive bill addressing the same issues about courts and law.

The bill in question, sometimes referred to as American Laws for American Courts (H.B. 562), would ban the use in U.S. courts of foreign laws that violate “fundamental” rights guaranteed by the U.S or Texan constitution.  The bill is similar to bills attempted recently in other states targeting Sharia by name but found unconstitutional. The present legislation has been scrubbed clean of all such sectarian references (the object of concern is now “foreign” law), although the bill’s sponsors have made little effort to hide their anti-Muslim leanings. Critics of the bill consider it not just inflammatory but unnecessary, since there are no known examples of foreign laws violating fundamental rights, and there are ample protections against such occurrences (e.g., Article  VI, Clause 2 of the Constitution). Indeed, legal experts have pointed out that “there is no mechanism by which any foreign criminal or civil code can trump U.S. laws.”

To solidify her position, Van Duyne has been actively ginning up support for H.B. 562. On March 19, at an open meeting of the Irving City Council, she  persuaded a majority of its members to join her in publicly endorsing the legislation. Many members of the Muslim community attending the meeting showed obvious dismay at the outcome. Van Duyne claims, in response, that her support for the bill has nothing to do with Islamophobia. Why in the world, she argues, would anyone oppose anything that supports following the Constitution?

But for American Muslims, there are reasons enough. The “American Laws for American Courts” brand of legislation has long been a key instrument of the anti-Muslim movement in the United States. It is based on a template devised by an organization called the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a neo-conservative group that takes a militant stand against world Islam (it calls itself “Special Forces in the War of Ideas”). CSP’s current general council David Yerushalmi, a right-wing Israeli who helped launch the anti-Sharia movement in  2006, believes that Islam is “inherently seditious” and that Sharia is a “criminal conspiracy” against the U.S. government.

Bills modeled on CSP’s American Laws for American Courts are controversial not simply as instruments of fear mongering. If passed, they could also cause measurable harm to the U.S. legal system because they sow confusion and raise the possibility of wasteful litigation. The American Bar Association asserts that the language in such bills is likely to “have an unanticipated and widespread negative impact on business” both in individual states and in foreign commerce. Moreover, many of such bills “would infringe federal constitutional rights, including the free exercise of religion and the freedom of contract.”

It is still too early to estimate the overall impact of the controversy in Texas. But for the 5o,000 or so Muslims living in the Dallas area, these have not been easy times. Feeling stigmatized, the community has had to fight back to counter accusations and suspicions.

As for H.B. 562, it looks like the bill will breeze through the conservative Texas legislature, even though it may face some speed bumps later on in court. But whatever its ultimate fate, the bill, helped along by the controversy in Irving, seems already to have achieved a central objective: ratcheting up anti-Muslim fears.  As Mr. Yerushalmi admitted several years ago, referring to similar legislation, “If this thing passed in every state without any friction, it would not have served its purpose. The purpose was heuristic–to get people asking this question, ‘What is Shariah?’ “

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