Is Sharia in America creating a parallel legal system? An inside look.

Mufti Muneer Akhoon counselling an American Muslim woman at the Islam Center of Hillside Avenue in Queens
Mufti Muneer Akhoon counselling an American Muslim woman at the Islam Center of Hillside Avenue in Queens

Sharia is a legitimate concern for many but its critics fail to realize that the U.S. judicial system provides space for foreign laws that do not supersede the constitution.

NEW YORK – After several unsuccessful attempts to do something on her own, an American Muslim woman turned to her local Shariah council in an attempt to save her marriage. This was her third session with the Imam. Dressed in an all-black veil which covered her from top to bottom, the middle age woman of Pakistani descent shared her agony.

“I love my husband and I do not want a divorce,” she said, requesting not to be named. “I have two children with him and I can't see my family get destroyed.”

The council which is based in a well decorated basement room at the Islamic Center of Hillside Avenue in Queens, meets daily, and most of the cases relate to domestic disputes. Husbands and wives enter the room separately and in some instances together to plead their case.

“Our main priority is to save a marriage,” says Mufti Muneer Akhoon, who holds a Ph.D in Islamic education and is a religious scholar of the council. “Often we ask them to think about their children because the separation of the parents is one of the worst things that can happen to a child.”

If a divorce is inevitable, the couple is given three weeks to think over their decision after which the wife is asked to file for Khula – a religious divorce sought in addition to a civil decree. In Islam, a husband is not required to go through official channels to gain a divorce.

The Hillside council started about 15 years ago but Muslims have used Sharia mediation in disputes for as long as the Islam has existed in America. Currently, 84 percent of the 2,106 mosques in the U.S. offer Sharia based counselling, according to the American Mosque Report. While the use of Sharia is a cornerstone for American Muslims, it is also a concern for many.

Last month, a multitude of anti Sharia protests were staged throughout dozens of cities in the U.S. stoking anti Muslim hatred among Americans, already at an all time high of 55%. The demonstrations were organized by ACT for America which defines itself as an advocacy group committed to mobilize “citizens community by community to help protect and preserve American culture and to keep this nation safe.”

Many organizations like ACT - which is classified as the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America by Southern Poverty Law Center - feel emboldened after the election of President Donald Trump who said during last year’s campaign, while talking about refugees, that we must “screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles – or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law.”

Nowhere else is the threat to American culture more highlighted than in Hamtramck, Michigan, reportedly the first Muslim-majority city in the U.S.

“There’s definitely a strong feeling that Muslims are the other,” said Mayor Karen Majewski.

Once a place that openly defied prohibition-era laws, shops that are within 500 feet of the city’s four mosques are not allowed to sell alcohol. And some residents are at a great unease over the permission to mosques to issue call to prayers on loudspeakers five times each day.

“It’s about culture, what kind of place Hamtramck will become. There’s definitely a fear, and to some degree, I share it,” adds Majewski.

Sharia is currently banned in over seven states. Most recently, Texas state senate banned the use of international laws in civil courts. Senator Donna Campbell said that there is no mention of Sharia in her bill and that it is to guarantee that no foreign law would be used to override American law in civil cases.

All but 16 states have considered similar legislations. Many of the bills introduced across the country were based on the model legislation known as “American Laws for American Courts” as proposed by the American Public Policy Alliance.

The group’s website says the legislation “was crafted to protect American citizens’ constitutional rights against the infiltration and incursion of foreign laws and foreign legal doctrines, especially Islamic Shariah Law.”

Most bills, however, were met with a thud because the Bill of Rights prohibits restricting freedom of religion – putting federal courts on the side of the religious courts. In 2012, a federal judge upheld an injunction to ban Sharia in Oklahoma on the grounds that “the state had not demonstrated any compelling reason for discrimination against one religion.”

Muslim leaders maintain the bills don't serve any practical purpose. They are - said John Robbins, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of CAIR - "a stupid solution to a nonexistent problem."

Another reason so many of the bills have failed is because religious courts in many denominations are commonplace across the country. If members voluntarily agree to the council's recommendation it becomes a contract legally enforceable in the U.S.

"A few years back, a Muslim man came to me because a federal judge asked him to seek mediation after his wife sought charges against him for not providing adequate finances," said Iman Chernor Jalloh of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York in Manhattan.

"I advised the man that it is his duty to support his wife, to which he agreed. And after the consent of the couple, I wrote a letter to the federal judge to drop the charges – as the matter was resolved in the Sharia council.”

Ahmed Dewidar, an imam at the Usman Bin Affan mosque in New York City, shared an example of a case he helped mediate outside the formal U.S. court system. A dispute arose between two business partners when one of them learned that the chickens they were selling were not slaughtered according to Islamic principles for them to be halal.

“I told them that the animal needs to be slaughtered according to Sharia,” said Dewidar, an Egyptian born scholar. “And the case was settled at that very moment – like 90 percent of the cases that we deal with.”

The expediency to dispense justice at little to no cost is one of the main reason why the councils are so appealing to America’s 3.3 million Muslim citizens.

Sharia, which is based on the Quran and the practices of Prophet Muhammad, unlike western law is not codified and so the rulings are open to the interpretation of the imam making them. There are no qualifications required to become a Sharia based mediator and there is no known central body that governs Sharia councils in America. Some councils have women mediators like the one in Hillside Avenue in Queens but the extent of their role is not clear.

Critics like Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of ACT for America, often invoke controversial tenets of Shaira which makes it very hard to not to reach the conclusion that some parts of the law are inherently anti women. “Let's talk about the thousands of women around the world whose names we will never know, who have been killed for honor according to a brutal seventh century code still in use today.”

Legal experts like Abed Awad, an attorney and an adjunct professor at Rutgers University Law School, agree that he has seen cases where ruling of the councils were biased against women because “many community leaders and religious leaders are not well versed in American family law. The training they have is limited to pre-modern Islamic family law.”

But Awad cautions that anyone thinking that Sharia in America would mean women being stoned to death is comical. Eliyahu Stern, professor of Judaic Studies at Yale University, concurs.

“This is exactly wrong. The crusade against Shariah undermines American democracy, ignores our country’s successful history of religious tolerance and assimilation, and creates a dangerous divide between America and its fastest-growing religious minority.”

Stern argued that the problem with the debate is that it's become about Islam – as opposed to it being about fair and equal rights under the constitution.

“The continuation of America’s pluralistic religious tradition depends on the ability to distinguish between punishing groups that support terror and blaming terrorist activities on a faith that represents roughly a quarter of the world’s population.”

Going back to the American Muslim woman who sought counseling with Akhoon, she was able to regain the love of her husband after Akhoon invited him to attend some sessions.

“I made him think about alimony; 'Can you pay that for the rest of your life?,’”asked Akhoon. “But the realization that he is abandoning his wife who dearly loves him finally compelled him to return.”

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