Adam L. Silverman PhD
At the beginning of February I wrote about how fear of the Muslim Brotherhood taking over in the US, as well as in Egypt was greatly exaggerated. This theme, or meme for the fashionable and trendy, goes hand in hand with the longstanding argument that Sharia Law is soon to be imposed in the US. Initially, in the first couple of years after 9-11 this claim was basically made by several Conservative (I’m using the term because I think that’s how they’d describe themselves) bloggers who made the assertion by arguing that soon Americans that were not Muslims would become dhimmis. In fact a new term was coined: dhimmitude; as in our impending dhimmitude. I’m not going to link to the people who put these arguments out then, one of whom was also a primary instigator of the invented Ground Zero Mosque controversy last year. They do not deserve the click through traffic, if you want to read what they had and have to say, just do a search for dhimmitude.
Within the past two years, however, this strange assertion and obsession seems to have spread more and more into the mainstream. First Oklahoma banned the use or imposition of Islamic Law, which was subsequently blocked on appeal as it would prevent Muslims from getting married or right a will according to their religious tenets Now several South Carolina legislators have decided that they need to try imposing a similar ban, which has also been tried, but failed, in Wyoming. The ostensible reason that one of the South Carolinian State Senators gives is that Islamic Law has actually been adopted in several places in the US using examples including child custody and a murder. A really strange trial court ruling in NJ, which was properly overturned on appeal has also been cited as an example of the attempt to impose Sharia Law in the US. Even everyone’s favorite overly hyper religious retired general officer, who despite his public, in uniform at a Church rant against Islam was partially put in charge of intelligence for the War on Terror by the previous Administration, has gotten in on the fear mongering.
The simple fact of the matter is that this is one more in a long line of invented, hysterical, and virtually fact free controversies designed to demonize all Muslims, scare largely uninformed Americans, and to be perfectly honest, raise lots of money. US laws, and US courts, give a fair amount of latitude to certain aspects of religious law. This happens because more Americans claim adherence and devotion than citizens in any other developed country. As a result we have privileged clergy to perform weddings and funerals, to issue divorce decrees or annulments, and conduct a variety of other activities that legally bind the civil state. We do this so that Americans of all faiths, if they so desire, can get married according to the tenets of their own religions, so that if those marriages do not survive, for whatever reasons, they can be dissolved according to the same religion’s rules thereby allowing the former spouses to be able to remarry within the guidelines of their faith. As Americans we take these privileges, that are derived from our 1st Amendment Religious rights and protections to be free to practice religion if we choose or to be free from the practice of religion if we choose, for granted and rarely if ever think about them. These rights and privileges cut both ways. New York State, like all forty-nine other ones, recognizes the right of rabbis to marry Jews and to issue Judaic divorces as well. And it is this reason that one NY Court has kept a Jewish man in jail in contempt for a number of years because he has hidden behind the Jewish tradition and failing to issue his wife a get (Judaic divorce decree, which frees her from the marriage so she can, if she wants, remarry). The ostensible reason for the man’s refusal is spite. Put plain and simply what we are seeing now is nothing more than the great American nativist tradition of picking on identifiable ethno-national and ethno-religious minorities. In 1785, and throughout the next two centuries, this was directed against American Catholics. It is important to remember that the original objection to building a house of worship in NY City was directed against what would become St. Peter’s Church. It was directed at the early Baptists by the Puritans in CT, which instigated their letter of appeal to Thomas Jefferson and his response, in which one finds the reference to the establishment of a high wall of separation of Church and State. And it was directed at American Jews, as well, ultimately leading to some terrible atrocities such as the extra-judicial murder/lynching of Leo Frank and the 1958 bombing of a synagogue in Atlanta. Many other traditions and religions have seen equally horrific xenophobia directed their way as well. The blatant racism, Islamaphobia, and hysterical, hyperbolic hostility that is manifesting against the construction of mosques, Muslim community centers, which is what the Park 51 Center actually is, and Muslims in America as evidenced in these ridiculous attempts to legislatively solve a problem that does not exist, not to mention actual violence, makes all Americans look stupid, and puts the truth to the lies that are spread by the bin Ladens and Zawahiris and al Awlakis of the world that the US is hostile to Islam and indiscriminately makes war on Muslims. As Americans we are supposed to be better than this. President Washington certainly thought so and he would weep if he was alive today to see just how far we have strayed from his understanding of interfaith relations:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.” – Excerpt from President Washington’s Reply Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI, August 1790
 Adam L. Silverman is the Culture an Foreign Language Advisor at the US Army War College. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of the US Army War College or the US Army.
 A dhimmi is a person of the book (ahl al kitab), essentially Jews and Christians, who live in a place that is governed by Islamic Law. It is essentially a theological contractual concept that refers to the protections and rights that result from paying the jizaya (head/poll tax) that non-Muslim people of the book pay to the Muslim authorities.
 I want to make something very, very clear hear: the retired general officer in question has the absolute right to believe whatever he wants and adhere to whatever religion he wants and as both an American and a religious minority I am willing to defend that right with my life. My issue with what he did, as well as how the Bush 43 Administration handled the remarks and the assignment they subsequently gave him, has to do with perception. The extremists that it is the US’s stated goal to defeat argue that they are facing a crusade and a religiously motivated wave of neo-colonialism. Once it was publicly and widely known that this individual held such views, putting him in a key position was information operations fratricide.
 Pew’s recent survey found most Americans were very uninformed about religion in general and their religions in specific. Often the more devout the respondent, the less knowledge they actually had: http://pewforum.org/other-beliefs-and-practices/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey.aspx
 I wrote about this in “A Tangle of Laws: A Conservative Jewish Response,” In Ethics in World Religions. Regina W. Wolfe and Christine E. Gudorf (eds). New York: Orbis Books, 1999.
 I’ve linked to a version that includes the original draft language (in the brackets) that was excised from the final letter. As originally drafted, Jefferson’s response was even stronger than the one he sent.