What you don’t know can most likely kill you. That’s at least the thought process behind a new bill that’ll be considered in the Legislature when it reconvenes next year. Rep. RoseMarie Swanger of Lebanon County has introduced House Bill 2029, which would amend Title 42 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, prohibiting “the application of foreign law which would impair constitutional rights.” And her bill is being supported by more than 40 state reps for one reason: Fighting commonwealth Islamic Jihad within the walls of state government.
It might sound crazy, but in a June 14, 2011, memo to all members of the House (titled “American and Pennsylvania Laws for Pennsylvania Courts–Sharia Law”), Swanger writes bizarre phrases like, “America has unique laws of liberty which do not exist in foreign legal systems, particularly Sharia Law.” And: “We are a nation of laws. Unfortunately, increasingly, foreign laws and legal doctrines—including and especially Sharia Law—are finding their way into U.S. court cases.” Also: “The embrace of foreign legal systems such as Sharia Law, which was inherently hostile to our constitutional liberties, is a violation of the principles on which our nation was founded.” And the bill she introduced to the state House mirrors legislation introduced and passed across Red America in recent years (Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Louisiana, Tennessee).
But there’s a problem: Like the voter-ID legislation, which will also be considered in 2012, this is a solution without a problem. There is no visible threat of Sharia Law—a set of Islamic principles some Muslims live by—taking over Pennsylvania. And in banning all foreign laws from Pennsylvania courthouses, some critics claim Swanger is not just using her own cynical form of xenophobic demagoguery over the people of the state and her district, but will make it harder for Jews and Christians, too, to settle personal, civil legal matters.
“The echoes for me are strong of Germany in the 1930s,” says Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Reconstructionist synagogue Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough, “when repeatedly, Jewish Law was brought forward and defamed in the courts as a way of defaming all Jewish tradition.”
When news spread of the anti-Sharia Law last week, Jewish and Muslim leaders from Pittsburgh to Philly began organizing press conferences and meetings rallying against this bill. One such press conference happened last Wednesday, in which the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) organized with local interfaith leaders to decry this bill. Holtzman joined CAIR Philadelphia Executive Director Moein Khawaja, Temple University Religion Professor Dr. Khalid Blankinship, CAIR National Staff Attorney Gadeir Abbas, CAIR Philadelphia Civil Rights Director Amara Chaudry and others. The news of this bill was not taken lightly.
Holtzman says this bill and others like it are used to “villainize” Muslims, and perhaps the lawmakers who signed onto this bill haven’t thought through the ramifications of banning all foreign law. “They’re putting this forward and somehow think that we won’t pay attention to the anti-Muslim feeling that underlies these laws,” she says. “It may surprise those of us who are not lawyers to realize how often the legal systems of other religious groups are considered and treated with respect in the legal system.”
For example, Orthodox Judaism doesn’t recognize civil divorce, and women aren’t allowed to apply for a religious one. Civil divorce settlements may require husbands to obtain a religious divorce. If he doesn’t, the civil courts sort it out often in order to create an opportunity for a divorced woman to continue living in her community. Other Jewish laws are often brought into the legal system in dealing with state inspection of kosher foods, and autopsies.
“My fellow Jews need to buck up,” says Eric Dondero, editor of Libertarian Republican.net, over the phone from Houston. “The big problem right now is Islam and Islamism invading our country. And if they want to continue to move in, we need to fight back. Their culture is coming here.”
Dondero, a former staffer for Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, has blogged extensively about what he calls “creeping Sharia Law” over the past several years. He says if you want to know what Sharia looks like in the United States, all you have to do is look at Europe, where he claims Muslim Europeans have “invaded” the countryside.
“They’re invading Switzerland and a Swedish island called Malmo, where the Muslims are raping all the European and Swedish women,” he says, recalling that city’s reports of lawlessness between the Jewish, Muslim and Neo-Nazi populations. And he fears that if Sharia Law isn’t banned in all states the way it was banned in his, the U.S. is next.
Those at the press conference in Philadelphia see things a bit differently. “The idea is that Muslims only want to apply this law to themselves for matters of personal status, marriage, things like that,” says Blankinship, who has been practicing Islam since the 1970s. “So if somebody writes up a will now and includes Sharia in that law, is the will therefore invalidated?”
The director of Temple’s Religion Graduate Studies says what he perceives to be anti-Muslim fervor is out of control, and this bill is evidence of that. “It is beyond description to say, ‘the Muslims will come in and impose Sharia law on all of the Americans’ when the Muslim population of the U.S. is about six-tenths to eight-tenths of 1 percent, and that community is marginalized put upon and extremely divided amongst itself,” he says. “The idea that this tiny and marginalized minority is going to impose this, that would seem to portray the American public as being very weak individuals, that they want this group to walk all over them and control them.”
For her part, Swanger hasn’t made any statements regarding her bill since last week’s public firestorm. She did not respond to requests for comment from PW.
But it’s unlikely she’ll back down come 2012, even though CAIR’s legal team has vowed to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. A plethora of Republican presidential candidates have made similar arguments against Sharia Law and frontrunner Newt Gingrich has even based several of his newsletters on this very subject, especially during the controversy surrounding the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in N.Y.C.
But its enactment into law doesn’t even seem like the real problem. According to CAIR Civil Rights Attorney Amara Chaudry, Swanger’s rhetoric is “nativist” and “is signaling me out and saying I am foreign and I am dangerous because I am foreign.”
According to Dondero, that’s true. “We like sex, booze and rock ‘n’ roll. Sharia Law and Islamism is the exact opposite of that,” he says, claiming he saw the ‘Muslim invasion’ of Europe while backpacking across the continent a few years back. “It went from topless beaches in the south of France to, all of the sudden, you see a bunch of women with burkas all over the place. And we don’t want that to come to our country. We like our women to be sexy and busty and blonde; obnoxious sexually, you know?”