Muslims launch campaign to 'understand' Shariah

March 5, 2012

c. 2012 Religion News Service
(RNS) Against a backdrop of heartland fears that U.S. Muslims seek to
impose Islamic law on American courts, a leading Muslim group will launch a
campaign on Monday (March 5) to dispel what it called misconceptions about
Shariah.

The "Defending Religious Freedom: Understanding Shariah" campaign comes at
a time when more than 20 states are considering or have passed laws
forbidding judges from considering Shariah in their deliberations.

Many Americans associate Shariah with the harsh punishments carried out in
a few Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, even as U.S.
Muslim groups insist they have no desire to introduce Islamic law on
themselves or others.

"There were all these wrong notions about Shariah," said professor Zahid
Bukhari, president of the Islamic Circle of North America, which is
sponsoring the campaign.

The most worrisome thing, he said, was that the level of hatred toward
Shariah had spread from the margins of society to the mainstream. The ICNA
campaign has already drawn fire from "anti-Shariah" groups in the United
States.

The roughly $3 million dollar campaign will feature billboards in at least
15 U.S. cities, "Shariah seminars" on 20 college campuses, and town
hall-style forums and interfaith events in 25 cities.

Sponsors also set-up a 1-855-SHARIAH hotline where callers can ask
volunteers about Islamic law, and has even hired an outside public relations firm,
The TASC Group in New York City, to shepherd the effort.

At least two billboards are already up. "Shariah is not scary" is the
message that flashes on an electronic billboard above New York City's Holland
Tunnel, seen by an estimated 120,000 people every day. Another billboard on
I-70 in Kansas City reads "Shariah: Got Questions? Get Answers," and lists
the toll-free number and campaign website.

In March, ICNA will sponsor town hall meetings or lectures in Dallas,
Houston, Chicago, Boston, and several other U.S. cities and college campuses.
Even before the campaign was launched, there was already pushback from two
groups, the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop the Islamization
of Nations, both categorized as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law
Center.

Pamela Geller, a founder of both groups and a lead organizer of the
opposition to a proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, called the
campaign "a complete whitewash."

The two groups have designed a billboard parodying ICNA's Kansas City
billboard. "Shariah: Got Fatwa? Get help!" it says, along with a toll-free
number and website, neither of which worked.

Geller wrote on her blog that the Quran endorses wife beating and mandates
that a woman's testimony is worth half that of a man's. Shariah, she said,
mandates the death penalty for apostasy and the subjugation of non-Muslims.
Muslim scholars counter that Geller and like-minded critics cherry-pick
from Islamic scripture or quote it out of context to paint a false picture of
Shariah.

Sheikh Abdool Rahman Khan, an ICNA Shariah expert and resident scholar at
the Islamic Learning Foundation outside Chicago, acknowledged that early
Islamic law said a woman's testimony was worth half a man's, but only in some
areas, such as finance and medicine, where there were few women bankers or
doctors.

"It wasn't about equality, it was about participation of women in certain
professions," Rahman said.

Modern Shariah scholars reason that because there are now many women in
finance and business, their testimonies are equal to a man's, Rahman said. In
practice, that means a woman can certify a medical diagnosis or sign a
business contract by herself.

"If you are looking for problematic texts in the Quran, yes, they exist.
They also exist in the Bible and Torah and other books," said Abdullahi
Ahmed An-Na'im of the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

"But Christians aren't judged based on what the Bible said 2,000 years
ago, but on how they behave today. Why are Muslims judged according to these
literalist interpretations, and not according to how the vast majority of
good Muslims behave today?"

Bukhari acknowledged that some imams interpret Shariah in misogynistic or
intolerant ways, and that ICNA recognizes the problem. The solution, he
said, was better training for imams.

"The Muslim community also needs to be educated about Shariah," said
Bukhari, "and we will be having these programs also for Muslims."