In a matter of days, Tennessee's state legislature is expected to pass a bill ostensibly designed to combat radical Islamic terrorism in Tennessee known as the "Material Support" bill or HB 1353. While the bill has removed direct references to Islam or Muslims at the pressure of civil rights groups such as the ACLU and others, if it is passed, it will seriously harm our security by alienating our biggest allies in combatting homegrown terrorism: our fellow American Muslims.
The impact of this bill on Muslims in Tennessee was on display in a recent training I conducted in Murfreesboro for educators and law enforcement officials. The training brought together local Muslim leaders and more than 80 civic leaders to look at ways to respond to a spike in bullying towards Muslim youth and rising reports of prejudice. Last summer, Murfreesboro was rocked by a series of protests against a mosque building project that resulted in two hate crimes directed toward the 1,000 person Muslim community, followed by a national media expose by CNN called, "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door."
Through my discussions with community leaders in Murfreesboro, the problem seems not so much one of a widespread level of fear or bigotry toward Islam and Muslims by average Tennessean citizens. On the contrary, they felt a sense of embarrassment about what they see as a new type of anti-Muslim sentiment.
It's important we understand the agendas and ideas that compose this movement to ban sharia in Tennessee and now more than 15 other states. On a national level, David Yerushalmi, a self-appointed expert in Islamic law and its intersection with Islamic terrorism and national security, wrote the original bill that serves as the template for each of the bills. Yerushalmi's organization, the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE) is deemed a "hate group" by multiple civil rights groups including the Anti Defamation League. SANE's founding mission is resonantly white supremacist as it declares that historically America was "the handiwork of faithful Christians, mostly men, and almost entirely white."
Yerushalmi and his associates at the Center for Security Policy have published a recent report, "Sharia and the Threat to America," that has served as the basis for anti-sharia bills currently under vote or review in more than 14 states. In a 2007 report, Yerushalmi wrote on homegrown terrorism in the American Muslim community, called the Mapping Sharia Project, he urged Congress to declare war on the "Muslim nation," which he defined as "Shari'a-adherent Muslims," and further asked Congress to define Muslim illegal immigrants as alien enemies "subject to immediate deportation."
A right-wing citizen group called the Tennessee Eagle Forum was the first group to push the bill into the state legislature. In a recent video produced by the group, "Losing Our Community," they conflate all Tennessee Muslims with Islamic theocracies in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and seek to smear Muslim leaders in Tennessee with radical clerics such as Anwar Awlaki, without providing any tangible evidence of this association.
While Yerushalmi and his associates seek to institutionalize a series of Islamophobic bills into state legislators, American Muslims are left on the sidelines feeling isolated and alienated.
Understanding Sharia and its Meaning for Muslims
As David Schnazer of Duke University discovered in a recent comprehensive study of homegrown terrorism, "Anti-Terror Lessons of the American Muslim Community," American Muslims are at the forefront of combatting potentially radicalized members of their community. For example, of the surprisingly small number of domestic terror threats initiated by American Muslims since 9/11 (154 in total), 46 of these perpetrators were turned over to the authorities by the American Muslim community.
The Center for American Progress has recently put forward a new policy brief, "Understanding Sharia Law," designed to challenge the conception of sharia that Yerushalmi and others are proposing in these bills. The idea of sharia being a purely "legal-political-military doctrine" is far from accurate according to actual Islamic legal opinion and the ways that Muslims themselves interpret sharia.
Dr. Sherman Jackson, a respected scholar of Islam at University of Michigan, points out that most Muslims tend to speak not of sharia but of fiqh, which literally means "understanding" and underscores the distinction between God's prescriptions on the one hand and the human attempt to understand these on the other.
While the common translation, "Islamic law," is not entirely wrong, it is under-inclusive: Sharia includes scores of moral and ethical principles from honoring one's parents to helping the poor to being good to one's neighbor. In most all laws, sharia prescribes no "earthly punishments" for those who violate the dictates. Reward and punishment in these areas are the preserve of God in the Afterlife.
Despite Being a Non-Issue, HB 1353 Will Hurt Tennessee's Economy
The movement to ban sharia is a non-issue both for Muslim scholars, who overwhelmingly support Muslims living by the U.S. constitution as the law of the land, and also as clearly laid out by the Supreme Court. More than half a dozen leading Muslim clerics in the United States recently produced a video PSA, "Injustice Cannot Defeat Injustice," condemning homegrown terrorism and the misinterpretation of Islamic theology that supports it.
In a 1990 Supreme Court case, Employment Division vs. Smith, over the use of peyote for religious practices, Justice Antonin Scalia deemed that all religious laws must adhere to the law of the land, the U.S. Constitution. In other words, for law to be respected and followed, Scalia declared that the United States can have only one law.
Just last week, as legislators gathered for a hearing on the bill, 350 concerned Tennessee Muslims gathered at the Capitol to urge lawmakers not to vote in favor of the bill. They argue that the bill is more than simply anti-Muslim; it's harmful to Tennessee's economy. As it is currently crafted, the bill gives an unprecedented and unchecked designation of power to Tennessee's attorney general and the governor. This consolidation of power into one lawmaker is something that citizen groups such as the Tennessee Eagle Forum ought to despise.
The bill seriously hampers the economy of Tennessee by undermining the effect of trade and commerce with Muslim-majority societies throughout Tennessee if the bill becomes law. For example, international airports such as the one in Memphis may see a marked decline in flights coming from Muslim countries. Nearly every hospital in Tennessee has a substantially high number of Muslim doctors. Dr. Gary Gunderson of Memphis notes that the bill will have serious economic repercussions for all Tennesseans because of an anticipated flight of Muslim doctors from Tennessee.
A recent survey has reported that more than 75 percent of Tennesseans are worried about the economy and jobs as their first priority, making the economic implications of the bill especially important for lawmakers weighing the bill's legitimacy.
Daniel Tutt is the Outreach Director of Unity Productions Foundation, and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a non-partisan think tank. An activist, speaker and Ph.D. student in philosophy and communication, his work seeks to build greater understanding across religious and cultural lines, with a particular emphasis on Islam and Muslims.