DETROIT — A national drive against citing “foreign” laws in U.S. courts — one that critics say is a veiled attack on Islamic Shariah law — has reached the state with the nation’s largest concentration of Muslims.
The Michigan bill, which mirrors “American Laws for American Courts” legislation introduced in more than 20 other states, was introduced in June by state Rep. Dave Agema, Grandville Republican. He has argued that it has nothing to do with Islam or the faith’s Koran-based Shariah law, but is designed to stop anyone who seeks to invoke a foreign law in state courts.
Mr. Agema’s proposal has not made it out of committee, but still has raised cries of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia from groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Michigan chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council of American-Islamic Relations, which have threatened to file a lawsuit if state lawmakers approve the measure.
“If anybody has a problem with this, that means they don’t agree with U.S. laws,” Mr. Agema told the Detroit News. “If they don’t want it passed, then they have an ulterior agenda. It shows the people accusing me of bigotry are guilty of it themselves.”
Mr. Agema did not respond to several requests from The Washington Times to comment on his bill.
Victor Begg, a Republican and senior adviser to the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, calls the legislation “hogwash” and said it is clear there is an underlying agenda. He suggested that such measures moving through more than 20 states are part of an organized and well-funded “witch hunt” and that Islam and Muslim-Americans are the real targets.
“We are appalled that our elected officials would waste their time on something that is unnecessary,” Mr. Begg said, noting Michigan’s economic woes, including one of the nation’s highest jobless rates.
“We are very unhappy that in these days and times that a large number of legislators would target a minority faith like ours. This is reminiscent of what happened to Catholics a century ago. We don’t need to go back to the Dark Ages here. We have built relationships and we do a lot of interfaith work, and we are not into civil rights, filing lawsuits and such.”
Backers of the law say they are reacting to court decisions that have cited either international law or faith-based statutes such as Shariah to help decide cases, instead of relying solely on the Constitution or federal and state laws.
Voters in Oklahoma overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in November that bans the use of Islamic law in court. In June, Tennessee enacted a law that, as originally written, would have empowered the state attorney general to designate Islamic groups suspected of terrorist activity as “Shariah organizations.”
State legislators in more than 20 states also have introduced anti-foreign-law statutes, although most are still early in the legislative process.
A study by the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., looked at 50 appellate cases from 23 states and found that Shariah law had been applied or formally recognized in court decisions.
Those cases, said Christopher Holton, a vice president at the center, represent the tip of the iceberg in what he describes as a growing conflict in state courts, where many decisions are never publicized.
“There is no question — Shariah principles are finding their way into our courts for years now. It’s inherently discriminatory for women — most of these involved family law. When you get a ruling in a child custody case from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan or Egypt and it’s family law, it’s all Shariah,” he said.
Mr. Holton argued that American Muslim activist groups and others have employed scare tactics and have mischaracterized the statute against foreign law. “It’s designed to protect constitutional liberties, not designed to go after anyone’s religious practices.”
Saeed Khan, a lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern history, politics and culture at Wayne State University in Detroit, called the Michigan legislation a sign of “bigotry and being a bully.” He said many in Michigan’s Muslim community were shocked that such a thing would arise, given the solid relationships built within the state.
“The community has thought that because of its longevity in Michigan, the fact that it has been such a productive and integrated part of the greater society, that for this attack to occur, for it to be targeted in such a particularly way — it’s a false issue in that none of the community members have ever tried to assert the codification of Shariah within the legal system. The community recognizes that many of the principles of Shariah are already addressed or accommodated in state and federal law.”
Mr. Khan argued that much of the drive behind the anti-Shariah statutes was fear of the changing American demographics and the rising prominence of minority groups. While Hispanics, blacks and gays have gained a certain amount of political and social capital over the years, the relatively small Muslim community is an easy target, he said.
“The music has proverbially stopped and the only community that is without a chair is the Muslim-American community,” he said. “It seems to me that a moral panic has set into the country. It is on its way to this irreversible demographic shift. To call someone the ‘M-word’ has replaced the old ‘N-word.’ Muslim-Americans are easy targets in cheap victories.”
Mr. Holton and other supporters of the laws, however, argue that state legislatures have a proper role in defining what policy should be when foreign laws are introduced into state courts. No explicit public policy exists in most state legislatures, he said.
“The case law speaks for itself,” said Stephen Gele, a spokesman for the American Public Policy Alliance and a lawyer practicing in Louisiana. His group is working with state legislatures on the passage of the American Laws for American Courts bills.
“People should encourage the passage of the [bill] because it protects all Americans from foreign laws or foreign judgments,” he said, encouraging those who may have questions to take time to read the language of those bills.
Too much emotional noise and outrage, he said, have kept people from understanding the legislation.
“I do not believe people should be concerned about the act in the sense that it is discriminatory against any particular religion or that it will lessen anyone’s constitutional rights,” Mr. Gele said. “The arguments that are made against [American Laws for American Courts] are simply refuted by review of the language of the act, which is facially neutral, and explicitly supports constitutional rights including free exercise of religion and the nonestablishment of religion by the government.”