Felonious Faith?

Some years ago, Jewish Lights published an anthology of Jewish mystery/detective fiction called Criminal Kabbalah (heartily recommended, BTW). The title is meant to be cute: the stories have nothing to do with kabbalist philosophy or practice. Soon, however — if proposed legislation in 13 of the United States becomes law — many publishers may find a market for true-life “Felonious Faith” tales.

Legislation just introduced in Tennessee would make the practice of Shariah a felony punishable by 15 years in jail, for example. Although Tennessee is the first state to propose criminalizing religious expression, attempts to ban religious and other “foreign” law, some specifically including halakhah, have been introduced in 12 other states. See Clergy Beyond Borders news/views blog for some useful links.

The outright attacks on religious pluralism and other troubling aspects of these proposed laws have been discussed elsewhere. At least as dangerous to pluralism, however, are the ignorance and prejudice demonstrated by official descriptions of religious law.

Ignominious Ignorance

The “Arizona Foreign Decisions Act,” reintroduced for 2011 as SB 2582, bans “any statute, tenet or body of law evolving within and binding a specific religious sect or tribe, including Sharia law, Canon Law, Halacha and Karma.” The kindest explanation might be that the latter is a typo, accidentally substituting karma, the Hindu philosophy of causality, for dharma, sometimes rendered in English as “duty” or “custom.” Despite ample comments from the community about the absurdity of including “karma” here, however, the law’s official overview remains unchanged.

The overview does not attempt to define karma but does offer definitions of the other prohibited “religious secular law” systems. The definition of halakha is obviously and inelegantly cribbed from Wikipedia:

Halakha constitutes the practical application of the 613 commandments in the Torah, as developed through discussion and debate in the classical rabbinic literature, especially the Mishnah and the Talmud (the “Oral law”), and as codified in the Mishneh Torah or Shulchan Aruch (the Jewish “Code of Law”.) The Halakha is a comprehensive guide to all aspects of human life, both corporeal and spiritual and forms a body of intricate judicial opinions, legislation, customs, and recommendations, many of them passed down over the centuries. It is also the subject of intense study in yeshivas.

The description of Canon Law is similarly taken, uncredited and haphazardly, from Wikipedia. In a high school World Religions class, using a single reference — and an encyclopedia at that — would be considered “BSing an assignment,” and failing to acknowledge quoted material or add citations would carry serious consequences. In a legislative overview, such a presentation is evidence of a deeper problem: ignorance and/or lack of interest in the religious expression to be outlawed. And the law’s definition of Sharia moves from sophomoric to slanderous.

(Deliberate?) Defamation

The definition of Sharia is credited to the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of CFR’s words are used, but the omissions are glaring, and the result defames both Sharia and CFR. All discussion of Sharia and secularism is missing, and there is no mention of hadith [post-Quranic narrative traditions] or the concept of tajdid [“renewal” or new thought for new circumstances]. Omissions from CFR’s section, “Controversy: Punishment and Equality under Sharia,” are particularly worrisome.

CFR’s text on punishment for hadd offenses is conflated into two misleading sentences:

Council on Foreign Relations: Punishments for hadd offenses–flogging, stoning, amputation, exile, or execution–get a significant amount of media attention when they occur. These sentences are not often prescribed, however. “In reality, most Muslim countries do not use traditional classical Islamic punishments,” says Ali Mazrui of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies in a Voice of America interview. These punishments remain on the books in some countries but lesser penalties are often considered sufficient.

Arizona Foreign Decisions Act: Punishments for hadd offenses include flogging, stoning, amputation, exile, or execution. Though these punishments remain on the books in some countries but lesser penalties are often considered sufficient. [sic]

CFR’s subsequent paragraph, a discussion of law, custom and change, is entirely omitted as is the remainder of the substantial piece, Islam: Governing Under Sharia. Is the ungrammatical mess of the Arizona Foreign Decisions Act an indication of mere sloppiness on the job? Or was the text deliberately edited to support a threatening view of Sharia?

The end result, in either case, should worry all faith communities and every citizen who values pluralism in the United States.

A Few Suggestions

Please stay informed — Faith in Public Life is one great news source.

Please encourage your own faith communities to examine how individuals and groups speak about one another — see, e.g., Clergy Beyond Borders’ Reconciliation Ride.

You might also want to look at the role of news outlets in perception of various religions.

And please consider adding individual and communal prayers to address this troubling development in our country.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

One thought on “Felonious Faith?”

  1. Very nice. I find this version, with its mirroring subheads and in-depth analysis of the Arizona legislation much stronger than the article by the same name at RJ.org. It strikes me that Arizona’s draft may be the product of summer interns who have not yet taken a Freshman Research and Writing course.

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