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Organized effort paints Islamic law as threat to US freedoms

By Andrea Elliott
New York Times / July 31, 2011

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NASHVILLE - Tennessee’s latest woes include high unemployment, continuing foreclosures, and a battle over collective-bargaining rights for teachers. But when a Republican representative took the Statehouse floor during a recent hearing, he warned of a new threat to his constituents’ way of life: Islamic law.

The representative, a former fighter pilot named Rick Womick, said he had been studying the Koran. He declared that Sharia, the Islamic code that guides Muslim beliefs and actions, is not just an expression of faith but a political and legal system that seeks world domination.

“Folks,’’ Womick, 53, said with a sudden pause, “this is not what I call ‘Do unto others what you’d have them do unto you.’ ’’

Similar warnings are being issued across the country as Republican presidential candidates, elected officials, and activists mobilize against what they describe as the menace of Islamic law in the United States.

Since last year, more than two dozen states have considered measures to restrict judges from consulting Sharia, or foreign laws more generally. The statutes have been enacted in three states so far.

Voters in Oklahoma overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment last November that bans the use of Islamic law in court. And in June, Tennessee passed an antiterrorism law that, in its original iteration, would have empowered the attorney general to designate Islamic groups suspected of terror activity as “Sharia organizations.’’

In the United States, Sharia, like Jewish law, most commonly surfaces in court through divorce and custody proceedings or in commercial litigation. Often these cases involve contracts that failed to be resolved in a religious setting.

Sharia can also figure in cases involving foreign laws, for example in tort claims against businesses in Muslim countries. It then falls to the American judge to examine the religious issues at hand before making a ruling based on federal or state law.

A confluence of factors has fueled the anti-Sharia movement, most notably the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York, concerns about home-grown terrorism, and the rise of the Tea Party. But the campaign’s air of grass-roots spontaneity, which has been carefully promoted by advocates, shrouds its more deliberate origins.

In fact, it is the product of an orchestrated drive that began five years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the office of a little known lawyer, David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial statements about race, immigration, and Islam. Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, Yerushalmi has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about Sharia.

Working with a cadre of conservative public-policy institutes and former military and intelligence officials, Yerushalmi has written privately financed reports, filed lawsuits against the government, and drafted the model legislation that recently swept through the country - all with the effect of casting Sharia as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the Cold War.

The message has caught on. Among those now echoing Yerushalmi’s views are prominent Washington figures like R. James Woolsey, the former director of Central Intelligence, and the Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, who this month signed a pledge to reject Islamic law, likening it to “totalitarian control.’’

Yet, for all its fervor, the movement is arguably directed at a problem more imagined than real. Even its leaders concede that American Muslims are not coalescing en masse to advance Islamic law.

Instead, they say, Muslims could eventually gain the kind of foothold seen in Europe, where multicultural policies have allowed for what critics contend is an over-accommodation of Islamic law.

“Before the train gets too far down the tracks, it’s time to put up the block,’’ said Guy Rodgers, the executive director of ACT for America, one of the leading organizations promoting the legislation drafted by Yerushalmi.

The legal impact of the movement is unclear. A federal judge blocked the Oklahoma amendment after a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, sued the state, claiming the law was an unconstitutional infringement on religious freedom.

The establishment clause of the Constitution forbids the government from favoring one religion over another or improperly entangling itself in religious matters. But many of the statutes are worded neutrally enough that they might withstand constitutional scrutiny while still limiting the way courts handle cases involving Muslims, other religious communities, or foreign and international laws.

For Yerushalmi, the statutes themselves are a secondary concern. “If this thing passed in every state without any friction, it would have not served its purpose,’’ he said in one of several extensive interviews. “The purpose was heuristic - to get people asking this question, ‘What is Sharia?’ ’’

The frequency of Sharia-related cases in the United States is unknown. A recent report by the Center for Security Policy, a research institute based in Washington for which Yerushalmi is general counsel, identified 50 state appellate cases, mostly over the last three decades. The report offers these cases as proof that the United States is vulnerable to the encroachment of Islamic law. But, as many of the cases demonstrate, judges tend to follow guidelines that give primacy to constitutional rights over foreign or religious laws.

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