Pakistan has been conducting peace talks with the Taliban’s Pakistani wing, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), for more than a month. The parade of bearded men holding these negotiations has become part of regular programming on Pakistani television networks. At each twist and turn, TTP’s demand has remained the same: the imposition of Sharia in Pakistan. This is a strange platform, since the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, as the country is officially known, already declares that all of its laws must be in accordance with Sharia.
The term Sharia is subject to similar political manipulation in the United States, borne primarily from a growing suspicion of Islam and Muslims. For example, an online campaign known as “Creeping Sharia” aims to curtail “the deliberate and methodical advance of Islamic law (sharia) in non-Muslim countries, particularly the United States.” In this view, a surreptitious and secret movement is underway for the “Islamization” of the United States and requires a pre-emptive response.
Both pro- and anti-Sharia campaigns draw their meanings from the political contexts from which they have emerged. In Pakistan, where the question of what it means to be an Islamic republic is a contested one, it is being interpreted by the Taliban to mean floggings, beheadings, and bans on music and girls’ education. This brand of Sharia vociferously and pointedly rejects all that is Western and imagines its interpretation as purely Islamic. In the United States, Christian conservatives use anti-Sharia campaigns to justify the threat of an “Islamic” enemy. For example, the conservative think tank Center for Security Policy, which supports bans on Sharia, believes it is slipping into U.S. courts and must be blocked. In Florida, an “anti-foreign law” bill was reintroduced for the fourth time this week with support from groups such as the far-right Florida Family Association. By and large, supporters of the Sharia bans in the United States seem motivated principally by their opposition to a multicultural and pluralistic society. One way for them to prevent that is to create legislative bars that seek to demonize minority communities.
American proponents of Sharia bans pay little attention to the U.S. Constitution, which mandates the separation of religion and state. The campaigners continue to promote “anti-Sharia” legislation that seeks to ban Islamic law in U.S. courts, despite the fact that religious laws, Islamic or not, are prohibited from ever trumping American law. Its superfluity notwithstanding, the Sharia bogeyman has helped galvanize support for conservative Christians’ push for laws in a number of state legislatures across the country. In Oklahoma, one of the first states to pass a Sharia ban, a ballot initiative in 2010 resulted in 70 percent of voters approving the ban. Their votes followed a fervid pre-election campaign that painted the Sharia threat as pressing and imminent. At the end of 2013, nearly 26 U.S states had introduced some form of such legislation. So resolute are the anti-Sharia campaigners that they stand undeterred even after a federal judge in Oklahoma declared the bans unnecessary and unconstitutional last fall. In 2014, several states are expected to introduce new anti-Sharia bills into their legislative sessions.
Why these confusions about Sharia and what it demands? The term itself is loose and multifaceted; it can mean anything from the Muslim belief in one God to a juristic interpretation of the Islamic rules of inheritance. Furthermore, there is no standard version of “Sharia” that can be relied on to sort out differences. Historically, it existed as a system of laws that draw from the Quran, the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet, scholarly consensus and analogical reasoning. Also in the mix were the prevailing customs in the local region. Many Islamic schools of thought existed and created a plurality of meaning that is markedly different from the legislation and precedence-based foundations of Western jurisprudence. Islamic law, along with its rules and procedures, stagnated with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of colonialism. During colonial rule, many Muslim countries moved to legislative systems that persisted until independence.
Sharia’s multidimensional meaning has made the term ripe for political manipulation. The Taliban’s demand for an imposition of its readings of Sharia is hence an effort to advance its broader political aspirations. Underlying its political project is the belief that a truly Islamic society can be achieved only through the most draconian and anti-Western interpretation of Sharia. It is also a reason that such literal readings of Sharia have become the mainstay of gun-toting hard-line groups such as the Taliban, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram. These groups hope their version of Sharia will help forge a unified Muslim society as well as their complete religious and political control over it.
The pro-Sharia campaign in Muslim countries (which posits an invisible Western enemy) and the anti-Sharia campaign in the United States (which posits a Muslim one) have a common theme that contributes to each other’s nativist credentials in their local context.
In Muslim countries, pro-Sharia groups seek to claim the singular right to determine what Sharia is, making it a vehicle on which their anti-imperialist political ambitions can ride. Similarly, anti-Sharia campaigns in the U.S. wrongly point to “Sharia” as an imminent threat, capable of subverting all American constitutional protections and judicial precedents to the contrary. Whereas the proponents of Sharia imagine Islamic authenticity as inherently anti-modern and anti-Western, their opponents privilege that interpretation by seeking a ban on the Islamic law within an American legal context.
Both campaigns — the politically motivated machinations of the Taliban’s Sharia in Pakistan and the misrepresentations of the Islamic law encroaching into the U.S. — are built on the suspicion of a pluralistic society where multiple faiths or interpretations of the same faith are permissible. It is a costly reductionism, based on the dated framework of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington’s theory of a clash of civilizations, in which the Muslim world is inevitably in conflict with the West. It is a vision of endless animosity and perpetual war. At the center of it all is “Sharia,” whose shifting meanings and varying symbolism have made it the ultimate tool for political maneuvering, both here and there. Recognizing this requires not a ban against Sharia in the United States but an understanding of its complexity, and a vigilance against its manipulations in both contexts.