Written by AZIZ HUQ - Watan -
With an eye toward the 2012 elections, legislators in six states have been debating laws explicitly prohibiting courts from considering or using Sharia law, with 14 more looking at wider bans on “foreign law.” They’re taking a clear cue from Oklahoma’s wildly popular Sharia ban, which voters approved as a state constitutional amendment last year by more than 70 percent.
Such laws are discriminatory and pointless. Civil liberties groups are fighting them in court and calling on state legislators to abandon such bills. But there is an additional reason everyone, including would-be proponents of the laws and the federal government, should oppose them: they pose a significant threat to national security.
To begin with, the bans’ justifications are thin. Despite the worries voiced by candidates in the recent Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire, no state, county or municipality is about to realign its laws with religious doctrine, Islamic or otherwise. Nor does any state or federal court today in Oklahoma, or anywhere else, need to enforce a foreign rule repugnant to public policy. Under the legal system’s well-established “choice of law” doctrines, the courts are already unlikely to help out someone who claims their religion allows, say, the subordination or mistreatment of women.
Instead, the bans would deprive Muslims of equal access to the law. A butcher would no longer be able to enforce his contract for halal meat — contracts that, like deals for kosher or other faith-sanctioned foods, are regularly enforced around the country. Nor could a Muslim banker seek damages for violations of a financial instrument certified as “Sharia compliant” since it pays no interest.
Moreover, these bans increase bias among the public by endorsing the idea that Muslims are second-class citizens. They encourage and accelerate both the acceptability of negative views of Muslims and the expression of those negative views by the public and government agencies like the police.
Such indignities arise amid a pattern of growing animus toward American Muslims. Reports of employment discrimination against Muslims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which declined after a post-9/11 peak, have recently surged. Gallup, Pew and ABC polls confirm a new spike in anti-Muslim views. Most troubling, tallies of hate crimes collected by nongovernmental organizations show the same trend.
In this context, bans like the one in Oklahoma will serve to chill cooperation by the Muslim-American community with counterterrorism efforts. This makes sense: in such an environment, it would be fair for Muslims to pause before, say, passing on a lead to the police, worrying about whether the police would then look at them with suspicion as well.
But the likelihood of such a chill is also supported by four large, random-sample surveys that I conducted with two colleagues, Tom Tyler and Stephen Schulhofer. Our data, collected from Muslims and non-Muslims in New York and London, suggest that the experience and perception of private discrimination have a significant negative effect on cooperation.
This not only affects everyday public safety, but also the interaction necessary to gather information about self-radicalization and domestic efforts to recruit terrorists. After all, it’s simply impossible for the government to gather all that information. For that it must rely on the public, both as a filter and as an aid in interpreting it. If the government lacks strong ties to the Muslim-American community, that kind of filter falls apart.
To prevent the erosion of such support, the Justice Department should better publicize its support for a pending challenge to the Oklahoma amendment. It should also announce that it will challenge similar measures as violations of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. Doing so would not only protect the rights of Muslim-Americans, but also send a signal that they can rely on the federal government’s support.
To be sure, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has taken steps against anti-Muslim bias, for example by supporting a California schoolteacher’s suit challenging her dismissal for taking time off to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. But these steps are inadequate compared to the scope of public and private discrimination facing Muslim-Americans.
America has been here before. In 1952, Attorney General James P. McGranery filed a legal brief for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, in part, he said, out of national security concerns. “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for Communist propaganda mills,” he said, and “raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.”
McGranery’s insight remains true today. The federal government needs to do more to defend equal access to the law regardless of faith. To do so is not simply to uphold our core values — it is also to work to improve our nation’s security.
Aziz Huq is an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago.