During the last few weeks, we have seen an outrageous attempt to impose sharia law on the US government and the American public.
NOT Muslim sharia; it is Roman Catholic "sharia" about contraception that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been trying to impose on Americans of all faiths and beliefs who happen to work at a Catholic-sponsored hospital or university.
Have Muslims been campaigning to impose sharia law on US courts? NO! Of the many faces of Islam in America, the face of the future -- open in wonder and questioning -- is the one our society could be, should be, encouraging. This one:
Yet the same voices -- Fox News, various candidates for President -- that have bitterly attacked non-existent attempts by American Muslims to impose sharia on the public have not criticized this actual real-life attempt at doing so by the bishops. Indeed, many of these same voices have supported the bishops.
The bishops warned about "religious oppression" even when the Catholic Hospital Association celebrated the arrangement that the Obama Administration worked out, making sure that health insurance companies will pay for free contraception without involving the Catholic-sponsored employers who might object.
The only threat to religious freedom was the attempt by the bishops to deny religious freedom to the employees of those institutions -- Catholics and others -- whose religious consciences are totally at peace with the use of contraception.
Nobody is preventing the bishops from preaching their version of God's will. Their problem is that they have not persuaded Catholic women. (98 percent of them use artificial contraception; the rate among non-Catholic women is 99 percent). Perhaps the "flock" are not so sheep-like as to blindly obey teachings on sexuality from an all-male, all-celibate hierarchy.
Similarly, the Philadelphia Inquirer just reported (Feb 20, p. 1) that Catholic hospitals have in the last few years tied the tubes of thousands of women who after birthing a child asked for the procedure. The operation sterilizes them. No more kids. It violates Catholic religious law. Yet thousands of Catholics wanted it, and the hospitals affirmed their conscientious decision. Are the bishops playing games here? To benefit whom?
The bishops are asserting that the only "Catholic" consciences that count are those of -- surprise! -- the bishops! Not parishioners, not women, not the adults who as children were molested or raped by priests who were protected by the bishops. This world-view mirrors and strengthens the similar view in other sectors of our society:
That "the economy" is made up of huge corporations and Wall Street bankers (certainly not disemployed workers or de-housed families);
That "the military" means generals and admirals, not soldiers whose arms, legs, genitals, minds and even souls (through post-traumatic stress) have been blown apart;
And so on.
In other words, the 1 percent matter; the 99 percent do not. Those who brag that "The Church is not a democracy" might better ask themselves, "Why not?" Indeed, in the early centuries of the Church the people of Rome and other cities took part in electing their bishops -- in Rome, the Pope. Time to renew the tradition, and not just in Rome?
Meanwhile, if we are seriously trying to assess the role Muslim sharia might play in American law and society, we might learn a great deal from the role of Jewish religious law. For halakha (Hebrew for "the path") is a path of Jewish law quite parallel to Muslim sharia in its place in the USA.
In the USA, each -- halakha and sharia -- applies only to those who choose to follow it.
Each is subject to varied interpretations. Indeed, since there is no central hierarchy in either Jewish or Muslim communities -- no "Pope" -- it would be a great deal harder for either community to impose sharia or halakha on the rest of the country than it is for the Roman Catholic bishops.
(But I must acknowledge that on some foreign-policy issues, the Government of the State of Israel is able to mobilize so-called "mainstream" American Jewish organizations for unanimous support in ways similar to how the Vatican can mobilize the bishops on contraception, stem-cell research, etc -- even when the grass-roots of each community disagrees.)
In almost all cases, Americans can invoke US law to enforce sharia or halakha only when two people have made a contract to live by some specified authority's interpretation of that path. In that way it is no different from any contract to accept an arbitration authority that two Americans of any sort might make with each other, and then might go to court if one party tries to break the contract.
The only case in which halakha might be said to become American law is that in about a dozen states, there is a legal provision that no one can label meat "kosher" unless it has been slaughtered according to the traditional (some laws even say "Orthodox") Jewish practice.
Even this law about labeling is minimally coercive. Anyone, Jewish or otherwise, is allowed to decide what s/he considers "kosher," no matter what label it might or might not have, and anyone, Jewish or not, is free to eat food that no one would label "kosher."
And no one can invoke sharia or halakha or Roman Catholic canon law or Amish custom to justify violating American law. Thus, no one is allowed to stone an adulterous woman or a rebellious child to death, even though the Bible provides for it, even if the victim has previously agreed to observe biblical laws.
All this because of the First Amendment, one of God's best creations. Because of it, all Americans of any belief-set are free to follow or not follow or variously reinterpret the formal law-code of our religious or ethical community. And we are free to worship as our own consciences teach, not under dictation by the government or even by the official leaders of our own communities. Like this: Look again, pause, contemplate the living future of Islam in America: Questioning. Wondering. Loving.
So the bitter attacks on the fantasized non-existent danger that Muslim sharia might be imposed on Americans has something other than the love of religious freedom behind it. There are three roots to this poisonous tree:
The fear of people who are "different" from the majority. That used to mean fear of "Commie" Jews, "rapist" Black men, "disloyal" Japanese-Americans, the "drunken" Irish or "Mafiosi" Italians. Now it is the Muslims who are seen as "different." Not only different, but "terrorists."
This fear of the stranger has always been worse when large numbers of Americans felt the US was in trouble, from a foreign war or a domestic economic disaster or the "breakdown" of an old moral and cultural system, on the way to a new one. At this moment in the 21st century, all of these -- very long unwinnable wars, massive disemployment, cultural transformation -- are frightening people.
So: A Catholic bishop or an evangelical preacher who is frightened that the old-fashioned family is dissolving, may resort to religious coercion to punish those who are moving in a new direction (using contraception to enjoy sex without having babies, having babies without getting married first). Or a factory worker whose job has been shipped overseas, or a veteran tormented by terrible flashbacks to his buddies' bloody deaths in a pointless war, may in panic that their America is swooshing down the drain, blame some "foreign force" - Hispanic immigrants or American Muslims -- for taking their America away.
And some politicians see those fears as useful to play on, to reorient parts of the public away from issues of wealth, power, justice, equality, community. From failed wars and taken-away jobs and foreclosed homes.
So -- what do the rest of us do? I recommend one action:
Write your local newspaper, post on your FaceBook page, send out as widely as you can -- a brief letter along these lines (but in your own words):
Dear editor, I am horrified that all-male, all-celibate Roman Catholic bishops would try to manipulate governmental power in order to impose their own theology about contraception - one that 98% of Catholic women reject -- upon women of any and all faiths and beliefs who work in hospitals and universities. This is exactly the behavior that some people hysterically ascribe to Muslim sharia, though American Muslims have never even proposed or attempted doing what the bishops have just done. It would be - it is -- outrageous for any religious group to impose its theology on the public. And it is outrageous to falsely accuse Muslims or any other community of imposing its will in this way.
Speak up! -- Write on! --- for religious freedom from the grass-roots up, against religious coercion by any power elite that cloaks itself in religious garb.
With blessings of shalom, salaam, pax, peace -