‘Dangerous times’: US Muslims mull implications after fall of Roe

Muslim advocacy groups in the US are raising money and considering potential legal steps after the abortion rights rollback.

A protester holds a sign reading 'abortion is healthcare' in Columbus, Ohio
Black and low-income women are expected to bear the brunt of the abortion rights rollback in the United States [File: Megan Jelinger/Reuters]

Sumayyah Waheed describes her current mindset as one of “grim determination”.

That is a change from the sense of devastation that Waheed, senior policy counsel at US civil rights group Muslim Advocates, says she felt when the United States Supreme Court last week ended the constitutionally-protected right to abortion in the country.

“This ruling empowers the religious right to continue to pursue policies that basically establish their religious positions into law,” Waheed told Al Jazeera. “That is a complete violation of anyone who doesn’t feel that way, particularly religious minorities.”

While Christian nationalists, right-wing politicians and anti-abortion rights groups celebrated the top US court’s June 24 decision to overturn its landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, many communities across the US have been overcome by uncertainty and fear.

Abortion clinics have been forced to cancel appointments and in some cases shut down, as “trigger” abortion curbs swiftly came into effect in some states, while civil rights groups have mounted emergency petitions to try to stop – or at least delay – the end of abortion services.

Black and low-income women are expected to bear the brunt of the rollback, with millions unable to get what often is a life-saving medical procedure. Religious minorities also say the Supreme Court has trampled on their rights.

According to Waheed, many Muslim Americans are having pressing conversations about the wider implications of the Supreme Court’s decision, including how it relates to state surveillance – something, she pointed out, many Muslims in the US experienced after 9/11.

In recent weeks, women have raised alarm over whether government and law enforcement agencies will be able to use tech tools, such as period tracking apps, to criminalise people in a post-Roe US. “The fear is definitely there. Community leaders have certainly spoken to it, and just [among] my friends, [we are] talking about which period trackers we should use, or should we just delete them and go paper altogether, just to be safe?” Waheed said.

“It’s much bigger than abortion – and everyone needs to realise that,” she added.

“This is the first time [the Supreme Court has] taken away a fundamental right, and what does that mean for us? What does that mean along with the rise of Christian nationalism? What does that mean with the rise in white supremacist violence? These are dangerous times.”

Abortion in Islam

There is no single stance on the issue of abortion in Islam. Islamic law and Islamic scholars offer a range of perspectives, from prohibition unless the health of a mother is at risk to allowing abortion up to 120 days of pregnancy.

“These different rules come from varying interpretations of Quranic verses describing the divine ensoulment of a fetus. This is not unusual. Varying opinions exist on nearly every Islamic legal rule and Muslims are accustomed to this diversity,” Asifa Quraishi-Landes, a professor of modern Islamic constitutional theory at the University of Wisconsin Law School, recently explained.

“Because there is no Islamic ‘church’ or even formal clergy, Muslims simply select whichever Sharia school of thought they want to follow. That means it is normal for some Muslims to oppose abortion while others insist on its legitimacy,” said Quraishi-Landes, who is also an interim co-executive director of Muslim Advocates.

A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of Muslim respondents said abortion should be legal in most cases in the US, while the Public Religion Research Institute, in a 2018 poll said 51 percent of Muslims agreed that abortion should be legal in most instances.

a protester outside the US Supreme Court
Experts say religious freedom is expected to be a focus of litigation challenging abortion bans and restrictions in the US [File: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

“The issue of abortion and reproductive rights is a very complex question, it’s one that divides the American public probably as much as any other issue, and I think the Muslim community is no different,” said Adeel Bashir, president of the American Muslim Bar Association (AMBA).

While Bashir stressed that the organisation does not take a position on abortion, he said its focus in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling is on those who will be most affected – namely, Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Trying to give people access and information [about] … what their rights are going forward and what their options are” will be important, he told Al Jazeera, especially since he said “there’s going to be confusion” amid the different abortion regimes in force in various US states.

On the legal front, Bashir said Muslim advocacy groups are having discussions right now about whether to pursue lawsuits against abortion bans on the basis that they violate religious freedom. A synagogue in Florida recently challenged a state abortion restriction on those grounds.

“That’s an option that a lot of Muslim organisations are considering,” Bashir said, adding though that AMBA has not taken a position yet. “For our membership base, there is a fairly substantial number of individuals who really feel that the decision is an attack on their ability to practice their faith,” he said.

Building connections

Shenaaz Janmohamed, executive director of Queer Crescent, a group that supports LGBTQ Muslims in the US, said though the organisation and its partners were readying for Roe to fall, the Supreme Court’s decision still felt “so enraging”.

“I just kept having this feeling like, I want to scream but will anybody hear me?” Janmohamed told Al Jazeera.

She said there has been a breadth and diversity of responses from Muslim community members to the end of Roe v Wade. Some have felt a sense of numbness and deja vu, viewing the assault on reproductive rights as another in a long line of rights abuses and bans targeting Muslims. Others have grown more emboldened and gone into the streets to protest and to build wider movements.

For others still, it has been a chance to start talking openly about abortion, she said.

“People are like, ‘Oh I had a conversation with my mom, and I learned that she had an abortion, or an auntie’. It also is creating a little bit more space to talk about what’s at stake here,” she said. “Prior, there was so much shame and shroud that is put on people … [In] these moments, people are turning to each other and talking about it and demonstrating their commitment to continuing to care and love and see each other, maybe with a little bit more resolve.”

Queer Crescent is preparing to launch a fund within the next month to help community members access reproductive health services and other supports, Janmohamed said. The priority will be on the most vulnerable, such as trans Muslims and their families.

“The reality is that this is going to be an enduring need,” she said, adding that building alliances also will be key in the weeks and months ahead. “It can be so hard spiritually, on the spirit, to see these waves of news and violence, and I think the more that we can see connections … to me that is the way forward.”

Source: Al Jazeera