US: Are 'anti-Sharia' bills legalising Islamophobia?

At least 194 bills were sought to criminalise Islamic law in the United States between 2010 and 2016, report says.

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    A protester holds a sign during an anti-Sharia rally in Seattle, Washington, in June [File: David Ryder/Reuters]
    A protester holds a sign during an anti-Sharia rally in Seattle, Washington, in June [File: David Ryder/Reuters]

    At least 13 states across the United States have introduced bills that seek to ban Islamic law this year, with Texas and Arkansas enacting "anti-Sharia" legislation, researchers have observed. 

    Researchers and critics fear that right-wing legislators are increasing anti-Muslim sentiment as Islamic law, known as "Sharia", was targeted by some 194 bills between 2010 and 2016, according to a report by the University of California, Berkeley's Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

    Of that total, 18 bills were signed into law in 12 different states.

    "The anti-Sharia law movement, by way introducing and enacting anti-Sharia law bills across the United States, seeks to legalise the othering of Muslims, as well as to perpetuate a fear of Sharia, Islam and ultimately Muslims," said Basima Sisemore, a researcher and an author of Legalising Othering: The United States of Islamophobia.

    In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 45, which prevents the use of "foreign laws" in state courts, specifically in cases that entail marriage or legal issues regarding parents and their children.

    Republican State Representative Jeff Leach and Representative Dan Flynn authored the bill. Neither replied to Al Jazeera's request for a comment by the time of publication.

    The two legislators had introduced several versions of the bill in the past, but House Bill 45 was the first to be enacted.

    Both Flynn and Leach have told media outlets that the law was not designed to single out Muslims.

    Yet, in an April 2014 email (pdf) to his constituents, an apparently paranoid Flynn claimed that the British government had approved many "Muslim religious precepts" that institutionalise "discrimination against women and children".

    He said: "There is no question the Judeo-Christian heritage we covet and aim to protect is under attack. We the American people must wake up and recognise the spiritual warfare raging in America."

    House Bill 45 was signed into law four months after Arkansas enacted a similar bill, which also barred "foreign laws" in state courts.

    'Threatens American democracy'

    Sisemore argued that these bills have a negative effect on Muslims by stoking fear and bigotry at a time when US President Donald Trump is targeting the religious minority.

    "The consequences of introducing or enacting anti-Muslim laws extend beyond the conspicuous intent to subvert Muslim Americans' citizenship and civil liberties, as has been demonstrated by the rise of anti-Sharia rallies that swept across the US in June of this year," she told Al Jazeera.

    "The underlying reality is that anti-Muslim legislation threatens American democracy and the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans."

    The underlying reality is that anti-Muslim legislation threatens American democracy and the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans.

    Basima Sisemore, researcher

    In June, fewer than six months into Trump's presidency, rising Islamophic sentiment exploded and anti-Sharia rallies were held in some 28 cities across the country.

    The marches were called by ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) watchdog describes as the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in the US.

    Claiming to have more than 500,000 members, ACT for America supports Trump.

    Its members have campaigned for strict legislation that targets Muslims and refugees in recent years.

    Those rallies drew the participation of white supremacists, armed militia groups and neo-Nazis.

    Yet, participants of the anti-Sharia marches were massively outnumbered by counter-protesters, among them anti-racists and anti-fascists who clashed with the anti-Muslim demonstrators.

    'Unfairly targeted and vilified'

    Critics accuse Trump of inciting anti-Muslim sentiment.

    One of the president's first executive orders barred travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iran and Yemen.

    The measure sparked large protests at airports in several cities and was later struck down in court. Trump, who denied accusations that the ban targeted Muslims, introduced an updated version of the order that excluded Iraq.

    Yet, as the US Supreme Court was preparing to consider its legality this month, Trump signed a revised executive order that dropped Sudan and added Venezuela, North Korea and Chad.

    During Trump's presidential campaign, he vowed to put a freeze on Muslims entering the country and refused to rule out creating a database to track American Muslims.

    Although the anti-Sharia movement was born in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, critics say Trump has effectively energised it.

    Nathan Lean, author of the Islamophobia Industry, argued that Trump's rhetoric has "unfairly targeted and vilified Islam's followers with half-truths, outright lies and blatant incitement".

    Speaking to Al Jazeera by email, Lean said that uptick in anti-Sharia laws is part of a concerted effort "to nurture an atmosphere of extreme scorn in which Muslims are seen as the enemy".

    He added: "Once [Muslims] are branded as such, it becomes easier to persecute them, and violence towards them - which we have seen - is a natural consequence of this."

    Hate crimes on the rise

    In the 10 days following Trump's election alone, there was an average of 87 hate incidents a day, according to the SPLC. Many of these incidents involved racist rhetoric or violence that targeted Muslims.

    Although the rate of such incidents has since levelled off, hate crimes have not stopped.

    In a report published in July, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes increased by 94 percent during the first six months of 2017.

    On September 16, a passenger attacked a Muslim Lyft driver in Evergreen, Washington. As he hit and choked the driver, the assailant yelled: "Where the f*** do you come from?"

    The local CAIR chapter has called on police to investigate the incident as a hate crime.

    That same month, a Lyft driver of Middle Eastern heritage in Houston, Texas, was physically and verbally assaulted by a passenger. The assailant, 39-year-old Matthew Dunn, was subsequently charged with a hate crime.

    Corey Saylor, director of CAIR's Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia, accused Trump of "whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment".

    "Trump's deployment of anti-Muslim sentiment during the election campaign had a significant contributing factor [in the rise of hate crimes]," he told Al Jazeera by telephone, "and I wouldn't say he has since let up on it."

    Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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