Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Roger Cohen goes hick-huntin'

From Roger Cohen in the NYT:
I decided to check the pulse of a resurgent conservative America at the Kumback Café. The Kumback, established 1926, is a cozy, memorabilia-filled joint that sits opposite the courthouse in downtown Perry [Oklahoma], population 5,230.

Things work like this at the Kumback: The guys, average age about 80, arrive around 8 a.m. and get talking on “the whole gamut of life”; the girls, average age too indelicate to print, gather later at a horse-shoe shaped table toward the back. Ken Sherman, 86 and spry, explained: “We’ve got to come here every day to find out what’s going on. And by the time we leave we forget.”

I asked Paul Morrow, a whippersnapper at 71, how things were going. “There’s just too much Muslim influence, all this Shariah law,” he said. “We’re conservative here, old and cantankerous.”

You might not expect Shariah, a broad term encompassing Islamic religious precepts, to be a priority topic at the Kumback given that there’s not a Muslim in Perry and perhaps 30,000, or less than one percent of the population, in all Oklahoma. And you’d be wrong.
Jeffrey Goldberg summarizes it as "A very good Roger Cohen column on the irrational fear of Sharia, which the people who fear it most couldn't define if their lives depended on it."

While Cohen makes a reasonable point that the danger of Sharia law to Oklahoma is pretty much nil and that it is being used as a shorthand to exploit people's bigotry against Muslims, it is equally wrong to dismiss the issue of Sharia as flippantly - and as condescendingly - as Cohen does.

I don't think that Sharia needs to be outlawed in the West. It has a place, and that place is as a method of private arbitration between Muslim parties who agree to be bound by the decision of the religious judges - as long as that decision does not go against secular law. So, for example, if a shopkeeper has a dispute with his customer and both agree to go to Islamic arbitration that would use Sharia law in its decision, the American court can accept that decision as it would any other arbitration - as long as no one's hands are going to be chopped off. Agreed-upon third party arbitration, after all, is why it is legal for TV programs like " Judge Judy" to exist. Any decision needs to be reviewed and approved by a secular court, and there is great benefit in taking pressure off of the court system.

Safeguards have to be built in so that no party is coerced into accepting an Islamic decision process, such as a woman in a divorce case, but the possibility for abuse is not enough reason to throw out the system altogether. 

Cohen's mistake, however, is in not considering how Sharia is not simply a personal legal code but it is intended as an all-encompassing system of universal laws  in the international arena as well. Sharia as practiced in Iran or Saudi Arabia affects foreign policy, it affects how wars are fought, it affects whether Muslim nations accept international conventions - they still do not accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights precisely because they perceive it as being in conflict with Sharia.  

There are fatwas issued daily against Western nations and leaders. Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen have been under death threats that are based on Sharia.  Is this not a concern to anyone who holds by liberal, western ideals?

In addition, Sharia is also used as a means to suppress freedom of expression, women's rights and an entire slew of other sacred liberal principles in a number of countries. It is entirely possible that Islamic law, as understood by hundreds of millions,  mandates not only the destruction of Israel but also the conquest of Spain and other "Muslim" portions of Europe. It is very shortsighted to dismiss the desire of Islamic fundamentalists to expand Sharia law as greatly as possible worldwide. 

Sharia does not distinguish between Islam as a personal religion and Islam as a geopolitical movement akin to communism or capitalism. This is not a danger to be dismissed so perfunctorily.  Cohen, by deliberately looking for the most illiterate hicks he can find to show his moral superiority, is being disingenuous. 

Bigotry against Muslims is wrong. But Cohen's unstated thesis is that  if there are bigots who are against Sharia, then there must be nothing wrong with Sharia itself. This is a false and ultimately dangerous idea.