A look back at 2011
2011 was a big year for Islamic law. Major stories about Islamic law cut across every section of the paper, from sports, entertainment, local, international, and especially politics. Below are the top news trends from the team at islawmix.
“Anti-shari’a” legislation spreads
According to Google Trends, keyword searches for “sharia” experienced a major spike in the summer of 2010 and stayed high throughout 2011. The greatest number of searches occurred in Tennessee and Oklahoma, states that saw the introduction of “anti-sharia” legislation in the past year. Bills banning the use of “foreign laws” or specifically Islamic laws were also introduced in Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Alaska, Pennsylvania, and in 18 other states.
In a piece for The Immanent Frame, islawmix scholar Anver Emon discussed the various shapes the bills took, noting that whether they pass or not, “[t]hey will at the very least provide the necessary kindling for a political firestorm about American identity, American existence, and the enemy among us.” In August, The New York Times profiled David Yerushalmi, a New York attorney responsible for drafting the template for “anti-shari’a” legislation. Other religious groups expressed concern about ways such legislation could impact them, including Jews and Native Americans. The Southern Poverty Law Center, Center for American Progress, and American Civil Liberties Union published reports focusing on the roots and realities of “anti-shari’a” legislation.
Troubling rise in “Islamophobia”
The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and the Newseum called “anti-Muslim bigotry” the top religion story of 2011, noting that 2011 was the year that “the anti-Muslim narrative migrated from the right-wing fringe into the mainstream.” islawmix scholar Noah Feldman called anti-Muslim “bigotry” the latest episode in a long history of antipathy towards a number of religious groups in the United States, including Jews, Catholics, and Mormons. The Southern Poverty Law Center commented in June that such bigotry “was largely ginned up by politicians and commentators pandering for votes and ratings. It’s been a despicable exercise in Muslim-bashing for personal benefit.” The Center for American Progress published a report in September examining the roots of the “Islamophobia network,” highlighting relationships between a core group of bloggers and activists and the pundits, news networks, and politicians who spread and amplify anti-Muslim messages not to mention the nearly $43 million in funding that makes it all possible.
Republican politicians can’t get enough of Islamic law
With Presidential elections fast approaching in 2012, nearly all of the Republican candidates tapped into this growing anti-Muslim sentiment and positioned themselves squarely against the so-called threat of Islamic law. The most vocal of the bunch was then-presidential candidate Herman Cain, who stated that he would not allow a Muslim to serve in his cabinet. He later retracted this statement, adding that Muslims wishing to serve could sign a special document proving their loyalty to the state instead of to Islamic law, which Cain views as “creeping” into American courts. In July, Cain stated that Muslims do not have the same right to worship as other religious groups on account of Muslims’ adherence to Islamic law. Cain “suspended” his campaign in the wake of series of allegations of sexual misconduct. Out of all of the Republican candidates, Newt Gingrich has perhaps taken the strongest position on Islamic law, calling it “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and the world as we know it.”
A few other Republicans made headlines with comments on Muslims and Islamic law. Tennessee Rep. Rick Womick raised eyebrows on Veteran’s Day with a statement calling for the removal of Muslim soldiers from the U.S. military, and responded to subsequent criticism from Muslim groups saying they “can go back to where they came from.” NY Rep. Peter King chaired Congressional Hearings on homegrown Islamic radicalism through 2011, drawing complaints over his focus of domestic terrorism on the Muslim community instead of examining wider trends.
Of course, not all Republicans feel the same way about the supposed threat of Islamic law, the most colorful among those who take a different stance being New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who called the upset over Islamic law “crap” and “just crazy.”
American mosques break ground
If 2010 was the year of the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, then 2011 saw that furor quiet down as Park51 and other mosques and Islamic centers broke ground, accommodating growing Muslim communities establishing community worship spaces. The supposed “Triumphalist Islamic Supremacist Mega-Mosque at Ground Zero,” Park51, opened with an exhibit on children and diversity in New York. Tennessee’s Murfreesboro Islamic Center, which faced significant resistance including vandalism and bomb threats and which was featured in a CNN special, also broke ground while opponents to the Sheepshead Bay, NY, mosque recently lost a zoning appeal. Other proposed mosques continue to face opposition. The Department of Justice is investigating discrimination claims over mosque opposition in Lomita, CA, and land intended for a Naperville, IL church now planned for a mosque saw sudden zoning disputes. In September, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a map showing mosque disputes across the United States.
Islamic law in everyday life
The media covered the day-to-day practice of Islamic law in athletics, the workplace, schools, the military, and prisons. Stories about Muslim athletes, from headscarf-wearing weightlifters to high school and college football stars balancing strenuous practice schedules with Ramadan fasting, let readers in on the choices that Muslims make when it comes to the legal requirements of their faith. Other Muslims face obstacles when choosing to meet these requirements. During 2011, nowhere was this more visible than in prisons and in the workplace. Incarcerated Muslims fought for access to halal (legally-permissible) foods, prayer accommodations, and the right to wear a headscarf, while Muslims in the workplace faced challenges in completing their prayers. Universities, elementary schools, and the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps all adapted to Muslim students’ needs, particularly with the growth of immigrant communities.
Islam, show business, and comics: Holy shari’a, Batman!
From comics and cartoons to reality television, Islamic law was all over entertainment. Graphic novels, including Frank Miller’s work of “9/11 decadence” Holy Terror to Craig Thompson’s love story Habibi to Naif al-Muwatta’s Muslim superhero team in The 99, took wide-ranging perspectives and approaches to depicting Islam, Muslims, and Islamic law. Plans to create a cartoon based on The 99 saw resistance from bloggers, pundits, and activists such as New York Post’s Andrea Peyser, who called the heroes “sharia-compliant.” Speaking of cartoons, Dearborn, Michigan was referenced in a 2011 episode of The Simpson’s as being “under shariah law,” leaving audiences guessing whether writers were poking fun at Michigan or anti-sharia activists.
All-American Muslim, a reality television show about a community of Lebanese-American Shi’i Muslims in Dearborn, was at the center of a December controversy when Lowe’s Home Improvement pulled advertising, apparently at the behest of a one-man conservative Christian organization. David Caton’s Florida Family Association called the show “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” Protests, boycotts, petitions, and outrage–from politicians to community leaders to Hollywood personalities–followed.
Teaching Islamic law
Two major stories about teaching and learning about Islamic law made waves in 2011. First, Spencer Ackerman at WIRED broke a major story about FBI training on Islam and library materials that strongly equated the faith with violence. The FBI and Justice Department have promised a complete review of all training materials.
Second, the December conviction of Tarek Mehanna for conspiring to support al-Qaeda caused alarm among professors of Islamic law, Constitutional rights activists, and journalists. Prosecutors argued that Mehanna’s translations of controversial materials evinced support of al-Qaeda while the defense insisted that he was a budding Islamic scholar and that his translations were protected under the First Amendment. Mehanna’s defense team has announced plans to appeal the conviction.
Of course, 2011 was the year of the Arab Spring, and the seasons that followed saw a dramatic rise in conversations and debates about implications for Islamic law under new regimes. Elections in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt are bringing Islamist parties to power, in most cases for the very first time, and it is yet to be seen how Islamic law will manifest with their leadership. islawmix scholar Noah Feldman wrote about how Islamist parties have absorbed democratic principles, and argues that this partly explains why they have gained so much ground.
Questions about the role and practice of Islamic law were omnipresent in media coverage of Saudi Arabia, where debates over women’s agency in public spaces loomed large. Saudi women were granted the right to vote in municipal elections by King Abdullah, but still can’t drive to the voting booth. On driving, activists, journalists, and others point out that nothing in Islamic law suggests that women cannot drive and instead decry Saudi cultural ideals. Of course, that won’t stop some Saudi clerics from saying that women behind the wheel will lead to cultural collapse.
The year ended with a bombing in Nigeria by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram. John Campbell at the Council on Foreign Relations writes that Boko Haram seeks state-level implementation of Islamic law, justice for the poor, but includes “includes nihilistic and criminal elements” and a hatred of certain secular politicians as well as “parts of the traditional Islamic establishment.”