As our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah and Christians prepare for Christmas, Muslims must contend with the fact that their own elected officials have capitulated to the hysteria of Islamophobia and are contemplating an anti-sharia bill.
On Wednesday, December 14, CAIR-Philadelphia and interfaith leaders held a press conference to challenge House Bill 2029. House Bill 2029 is the latest in a series of bills introduced in state legislators across the country, many of which have passed. They are written by anti-Muslim, white supremacist David Yerushalmi. Although the bill itself does not mention sharia, the legislative intent is clear by its sponsors. Blatant government action against sharia, and by extension all Muslims, will not be tolerated and CAIR-Philadelphia will take a stand.
So what is sharia? In simplest terms, it is primarily a set of principles and guidelines observant Muslims follow. It also includes methodologies of jurisprudence for producing religious opinions on matters involving Muslim life. Sharia does not mean totalitarianism, and it is not a set of barbaric punishments or penal codes. In fact, sharia has become a part of Philadelphia culture. Have you ever enjoyed a gyro or platter from a food cart or restaurant in Philadelphia? Chances are the meat was halal – the sharia-compliant method of slaughtering and preparing meat. Philadelphians of all faiths consume sharia compliant food every day here in Philadelphia. Indeed, sharia has contributed to the cultural and culinary richness of Philadelphia in a way many of us take for granted, and that is but one example.
Yes, in some parts of the Muslim majority world, sharia has been interpreted, twisted and applied in extreme ways. In other instances, criminal behavior among some Muslims has been wrongfully conflated with sharia. CAIR unequivocally condemns these extremists among the Muslim community and will be the first to stand against them. But let’s understand that there is already a criminal justice system in place to prosecute such individuals. We do not need a vague bill that claims to protect women in children; we have law enforcement, department of child and family services and a multitude of other agencies for that. Furthermore, the courts have made clear that religious beliefs cannot overrule civic laws.
What has arrived in Pennsylvania is the second or third version of much more explicitly anti-Muslim legislation that swept through Oklahoma and Tennessee last year. For example, what was proposed under Tennessee’s anti-sharia bill was that the state’s attorney general can freeze the assets of any organization that is “promoting sharia” and the government can label any group of Muslims as a “sharia organization.” In other words, the sponsors of the Tennessee bill tried to make it illegal to be a Muslim.
So where does this blatant, in-your-face bigotry come from? It is the work of David Yerushalmi. In 2007, he pushed for legislation that would make adherence to sharia (in other words, the practice of Islam) a felony punishable by 20 years in prison. He urged the U.S. government to declare a war on Islam and all Muslims. But he doesn’t stop there. He believes liberal Jews “destroy their host nations like parasites” and has suggested that whites are genetically superior to blacks. Let me be clear: he is the author of Pennsylvania House Bill 2029. We know this because entire sections of the bill are identical to those authored by him for other states. Yes, sharia is not mentioned in the bill, but that is only because previous versions in other states which did mention sharia are facing tough legal battles as their discriminatory intent is quite clear. Thus, Representative RoseMarie Swanger (R-Lebanon) might be the sponsor of the bill, but she is not the author despite her claims, which is refreshing I might add.
I do not think Representative Swanger or any of the co-sponsors are anti-Muslim bigots. Rather, what is offensive is their sheer lack of due diligence and the level to which they are misinformed. As taxpayers, we send our money to Harrisburg expecting our elected officials to do their homework and to at least know who is writing their bills. I hope that upon learning more about the inspiration of her bill, Rep. Swanger will be appalled and will seek to distance herself from this mistake. Furthermore, if she is truly concerned about the welfare of women and children as she states, then she should author a bill regarding women and children. Indeed, we would support her in that effort.
Another troubling aspect of this legislation is the profound ignorance of the U.S. constitution and legal system exhibited by some of our state representatives and members of the public. It is by design impossible to have a foreign system of law or religious laws supersede the Constitution. Both Muslim sharia law and Jewish halakha law are considered by judges on a regular basis, and that is what this bill threatens, the consideration of foreign or religious laws. For example, what if a restaurant claiming to serve halal (sharia-compliant) meat is found to not serve halal meat? If there were a lawsuit brought forth against it, a judge would have to look at the sharia standards for halal meat. Simple and straightforward; it boggles my mind how that is threatening to anyone.
House Bill 2029 is a threat to the religious liberty of all Pennsylvanians, not just Muslims. And if one believes it not to be a threat, then it is redundant and has no true application. At its worst, it may just serve as a repository for anti-Muslim paranoia and fear mongering. Ultimately, this bill is a farce. America has been interacting with foreign countries, foreign systems of government and various religions since its founding and without detriment to the Constitution. It’s comical to think that a bill titled “American Laws for American Courts” would need to be introduced in 2011, over 200 years after the Constitution was written. CAIR-Philadelphia is calling the bluff, the ignorance and the bigotry behind this bill.
If this does get anywhere, we are fully prepared to defeat it on First Amendment grounds. Not only are we not seeking to overturn the Constitution, it is our last line of defense in the struggle against Islamophobia and ignorance.
By Moein Khawaja, CAIR-Philadelphia Executive Director