Local leaders weigh in on Shariah law amid protests at Islamic Center

Posted at 8:00 AM, Sep 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-17 08:00:05-04

Over the past three months, Muslims and the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati have been targets of protest and public comments against Shariah, the rules that govern how Muslims practice their religion and treat others.

Three people spoke out against Shariah at West Chester trustee meetings, and a handful of people protested outside the mosque.

Their message was that Shariah forbids freedom of speech and freedom of religion. But they do not have an accurate picture of what Shariah law is, say experts in Islamic studies.

Islam says that each religion has its own Shariah, or way, said Xavier University chair of Islamic studies Waleed El-Ansary. A good Muslim, who follows Shariah, can be a good citizen, he said, just as a good Orthodox Jew can.

“It’s kind of a red herring to say American Muslims represent a threat to their fellow Americans because of Shariah, when Shariah doesn't apply to non-Muslims to begin with,” said El-Ansary, who often prays at the West Chester mosque. “It really is a kind of excuse or rationalization to basically criticize Islam, or somehow associate Muslims with violence and to demonize Muslims.”

Shariah law is complicated, and there are different understandings of the concept. So here is an explanation of what Shariah is and what it isn’t. This summary was compiled through conversations with local Muslims, El-Ansary and Ihsan Bagby, who teaches Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky.

Shariah is an Arabic word that simply means “the way,” El-Ansary said. Some Shariah precepts come directly from the Koran, the holy book of Islam, and some from the sayings of the prophet Muhammed.

Still more come from the writings of Islamic scholars, as they interpret the Koran for the modern world.

Shariah is like the Jewish law as described in the Torah. Both are codes of conduct that scholars have written extensively about as they “try to interpret and understand their text in light of the modern world,” Bagby said.

Shariah for Muslims proscribes an individual’s obligations to God and to other people. It includes the following:

  • Descriptions of the proper way to worship at prayer service, including bowing to face Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammed;
  • Rules concerning the Five Pillars of Islam, the framework of Muslim life. These are the testimony that there is no god but God, prayer five times a day, giving to the needy, fasting during the month of Ramadan and making a pilgrimage to Mecca;
  • Rules about marriage and the wedding ceremony;
  • Rules about what foods to eat. Muslims are forbidden to eat pork or drink alcoholic beverages;
  • And laws about contracts, family relations, crimes and inheritance.

“In my experience, when most Westerners think of the Shariah, they think about stoning people, or cutting off hands and so forth,” El-Ansary said. But none of those punishments have been carried out in Egypt, for example, in more than a thousand years.

Shariah “offers considerable flexibility in terms of forms of government, and is a guarantor of basic rights,” he said. “Terrorist organizations such as ISIS are obviously in violation of the Shariah.”

When Muslims throughout the world think of Shariah, they think of the basics of Islam. “That’s why it’s so frightening when people want to make Shariah a boogeyman,” Bagby said.

Over the past two months, three people have used the public comment periods of the West Chester Township trustees’ meeting to express negative views of Shariah.

They included Jeremiah York, who was also one of the protesters against Shariah at the mosque in June. At the trustee’s Aug. 8 meeting, he said that what our Constitution protects as freedom of speech, Shariah law condemns as blasphemy.

He then listed countries where a charge of blasphemy could mean a prison sentence or even a death sentence.

Other residents have used the public comment periods to defend Islam and condemn bigotry.

At the July 11 meeting, Cathina Hourani, who worships at the mosque, clarified terms used at previous meetings. “Jihad” is usually translated as “holy war,” she said, when it really just means “struggle.” Her own jihad would be to combat hate and terrorism, she added.

At the Aug. 22 meeting, Erica McCain talked about the white supremacist rally in Charlottsville, Virginia, in August, where a former Northern Kentucky man was accused of driving his car into counter-protesters, killing one.

That event reminded us that racism is alive and well in America, McCain told the trustees.

She asked each of them to denounce racism that night at the meeting.

“We have hatred here in West Chester, it is widely known,” she said.

The Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech doesn't give us the right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater, Trustee Lee Wong said.

“Some people use it as an excuse to sell hateful ideas, to incite violence, riots in our peaceful community. In the name of Christ even,” he said. “The Bible teaches me that we need to love our neighbors and try to live in the image of God.”

There are hate groups on both the right and the left, Trustee George Lang said. “Everyone has the right to hate in America, but you don’t have the right to act out on that hatred.”

He urged people to ignore the hatred unless they’re confronted with it directly.

“We’re giving way too much attention … to the damned idiots,” he said.

Hourani said she was glad to get a positive response from the trustees. Although the demonstration at the mosque drew more counter-protesters than Shariah protesters, she said, events like that do concern her.

The mosque has been in West Chester for more than 20 years, she said, and she’s not sure why people are upset about it now.

“I don’t know what happened to trigger that,” she said.

She invited residents who are truly concerned about Shariah in their community to come to the mosque and have coffee with her.

“I’d be more than happy to answer any questions they have,” she said. “No one should have to live in fear of someone else.”