NASHVILLE — Tennessee’s latest woes include high unemployment, continuing foreclosures and a battle over collective-bargaining rights for teachers. But when a Republican representative took the Statehouse floor during a recent hearing, he warned of a new threat to his constituents’ way of life: Islamic law.
The representative, a former fighter pilot named Rick Womick, said he had been studying the Koran. He declared that Shariah, the Islamic code that guides Muslim beliefs and actions, is not just an expression of faith but a political and legal system that seeks world domination. “Folks,” Mr. Womick, 53, said with a sudden pause, “this is not what I call ‘Do unto others what you’d have them do unto you.’ ”
Similar warnings are being issued across the country as Republican presidential candidates, elected officials and activists mobilize against what they describe as the menace of Islamic law in the United States.
Since last year, more than two dozen states have considered measures to restrict judges from consulting Shariah, or foreign and religious laws more generally. The statutes have been enacted in three states so far.
Voters in Oklahoma overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment last November that bans the use of Islamic law in court. And in June, Tennessee passed an antiterrorism law that, in its original iteration, would have empowered the attorney general to designate Islamic groups suspected of terror activity as “Shariah organizations.”
A confluence of factors has fueled the anti-Shariah movement, most notably the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York, concerns about homegrown terrorism and the rise of the Tea Party. But the campaign’s air of grass-roots spontaneity, which has been carefully promoted by advocates, shrouds its more deliberate origins.
In fact, it is the product of an orchestrated drive that began five years ago in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the office of a little-known lawyer, David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam. Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, Mr. Yerushalmi has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.
Working with a cadre of conservative public-policy institutes and former military and intelligence officials, Mr. Yerushalmi has written privately financed reports, filed lawsuits against the government and drafted the model legislation that recently swept through the country — all with the effect of casting Shariah as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the cold war.
The message has caught on. Among those now echoing Mr. Yerushalmi’s views are prominent Washington figures like R. James Woolsey, a former director of the C.I.A., and the Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, who this month signed a pledge to reject Islamic law, likening it to “totalitarian control.”
Yet, for all its fervor, the movement is arguably directed at a problem more imagined than real. Even its leaders concede that American Muslims are not coalescing en masse to advance Islamic law. Instead, they say, Muslims could eventually gain the kind of foothold seen in Europe, where multicultural policies have allowed for what critics contend is an overaccommodation of Islamic law.
“Before the train gets too far down the tracks, it’s time to put up the block,” said Guy Rodgers, the executive director of ACT for America, one of the leading organizations promoting the legislation drafted by Mr. Yerushalmi.
The more tangible effect of the movement, opponents say, is the spread of an alarmist message about Islam — the same kind of rhetoric that appears to have influenced Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect in the deadly dual attacks in Norway on July 22. The anti-Shariah campaign, they say, appears to be an end in itself, aimed at keeping Muslims on the margins of American life.
“The fact is there is no Shariah takeover in America,” said Salam Al-Marayati, the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, one of several Muslim organizations that have begun a counteroffensive. “It’s purely a political wedge to create fear and hysteria.”
Anti-Shariah organizers are pressing ahead with plans to introduce versions of Mr. Yerushalmi’s legislation in half a dozen new states, while reviving measures that were tabled in others.
The legal impact of the movement is unclear. A federal judge blocked the Oklahoma amendment after a representative of the Council on American- Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, sued the state, claiming the law was an unconstitutional infringement on religious freedom.
The establishment clause of the Constitution forbids the government from favoring one religion over another or improperly entangling itself in religious matters. But many of the statutes are worded neutrally enough that they might withstand constitutional scrutiny while still limiting the way courts handle cases involving Muslims, other religious communities or foreign and international laws.
For Mr. Yerushalmi, the statutes themselves are a secondary concern. “If this thing passed in every state without any friction, it would have not served its purpose,” he said in one of several extensive interviews. “The purpose was heuristic — to get people asking this question, ‘What is Shariah?’ ”
The Road Map
Shariah means “the way to the watering hole.” It is Islam’s road map for living morally and achieving salvation. Drawing on the Koran and the sunnah — the sayings and traditions of the prophet Muhammad — Islamic law reflects what scholars describe as the attempt, over centuries, to translate God’s will into a system of required beliefs and actions.
In the United States, Shariah, like Jewish law, most commonly surfaces in court through divorce and custody proceedings or in commercial litigation. Often these cases involve contracts that failed to be resolved in a religious setting. Shariah can also figure in cases involving foreign laws, for example in tort claims against businesses in Muslim countries. It then falls to the American judge to examine the religious issues at hand before making a ruling based on federal or state law.
The frequency of such cases is unknown. A recent report by the Center for Security Policy, a research institute based in Washington for which Mr. Yerushalmi is general counsel, identified 50 state appellate cases, mostly over the last three decades. The report offers these cases as proof that the United States is vulnerable to the encroachment of Islamic law. But, as many of the cases demonstrate, judges tend to follow guidelines that give primacy to constitutional rights over foreign or religious laws.
The exceptions stand out. Critics most typically cite a New Jersey case last year in which a Moroccan woman sought a restraining order against her husband after he repeatedly assaulted and raped her. The judge denied the request, finding that the defendant lacked criminal intent because he believed that his wife must comply, under Islamic law, with his demand for sex.
The decision was reversed on appeal.
“It’s wrong to just accept that the courts generally get it right, but sometimes get it wrong,” said Stephen M. Gelé, a Louisiana lawyer who represents a nonprofit organization that has promoted Mr. Yerushalmi’s legislation. “There is no reason to make a woman play a legal game of Russian roulette.”
While proponents of the legislation have seized on aspects of Shariah that are unfavorable to women, Mr. Yerushalmi’s focus is broader. His interest in Islamic law began with the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, when he was living in Ma’ale Adumim, a large Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
At the time, Mr. Yerushalmi, a native of South Florida, divided his energies between a commercial litigation practice in the United States and a conservative research institute based in Jerusalem, where he worked to promote free-market reform in Israel.
After moving to Brooklyn the following year, Mr. Yerushalmi said he began studying Arabic and Shariah under two Islamic scholars, whom he declined to name. He said his research made clear that militants had not “perverted” Islamic law, but were following an authoritative doctrine that sought global hegemony — a mission, he says, that is shared by Muslims around the world. To illustrate that point, Mr. Yerushalmi cites studies in which large percentages of Muslims overseas say they support Islamic rule.
In interviews, Islamic scholars disputed Mr. Yerushalmi’s claims. Although Islam, like some other faiths, aspires to be the world’s reigning religion, they said, the method for carrying out that goal, or even its relevance in everyday life, remains a far more complex subject than Mr. Yerushalmi suggests.
“Even in Muslim-majority countries, there is a huge debate about what it means to apply Islamic law in the modern world,” said Andrew F. March, an associate professor specializing in Islamic law at Yale University. The deeper flaw in Mr. Yerushalmi’s argument, Mr. March said, is that he characterizes the majority of Muslims who practice some version of Shariah — whether through prayer, charitable giving or other common rituals — as automatic adherents to Islam’s medieval rules of war and political domination.
It is not the first time Mr. Yerushalmi has engaged in polemics. In a 2006 essay, he wrote that “most of the fundamental differences between the races are genetic,” and asked why “people find it so difficult to confront the facts that some races perform better in sports, some better in mathematical problem-solving, some better in language, some better in Western societies and some better in tribal ones?” He has also railed against what he sees as a politically correct culture that avoids open discussion of why “the founding fathers did not give women or black slaves the right to vote.”
On its Web site, the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent Jewish civil rights organization, describes Mr. Yerushalmi as having a record of “anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black bigotry.” His legal clients have also drawn notoriety, among them Pamela Geller, an incendiary blogger who helped drive the fight against the Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero............................................
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