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July 16, 2016

It's not about sharia

As is routine, some of the commentary following the recent attack in Nice, France, has attempted to shift the discussion to religion. Despite being nonreligious and having no known sympathy or affiliation with an extreme Islamist group, the perpetrator's name was Mohamed and the victims were mostly white Europeans. Therefore, a certain mode of analysis is brought to bear, namely, we in the West are under siege by an alien Islamic enemy.

Former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich recently made remarks encouraging Americans to focus on sharia law, not a first for the former speaker. As he commented on Fox News: "Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported ... Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization."

Concerning his assertion that Western civilization is in a war with the Arab-Islamic world, I've treated this matter at some length in book form. But it should suffice to point out that from the Crusades to the present, the story has been Western interference in the Middle East, not the other way around. To pick one telling statistic: from the 1991 Gulf War to the present, the United States can claim responsibility for the death of approximately 1 million Iraqis, which includes both major operations and the devastating UN sanctions regime between them. And because of the US-led destabilization of Iraq, the byproduct of terrorist violence has become an epidemic in that country. According to the Global Terrorism Index, in 2014 alone, Iraq suffered 9,929 deaths due to terrorism attacks, "the highest ever recorded in a single country." And, of course, to this we can add the emergence of ISIS.

Gingrich's stated anxiety over sharia, on the other hand, suggests their faith is corrupt, and therefore Muslims are suspicious. Yet, as mentioned, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the truck driver in Nice, was by all accounts not a religious man. And so far, there is no ISIS or al-Qaida connection. Nevertheless, let us suppose for a moment that Bouhlel was a devout Muslim, a person for whom sharia played a central role in his day-to-day decision making. To top it off, an ISIS sympathizer. What then?

Even under these hypothetical circumstances, driving a truck into a crowd of people is not representative of Islam, nor of sharia law as observed by Muslims all over the world. Terrorism is against Islamic law and forbidden in the Quran (see Juan Cole's informative essay on the subject).

However, one can maintain anything while wielding a religious vocabulary. Tribal brutality in Afghanistan, such as burying waste-deep and stoning adulterers, is executed under the professed license of Islam and sharia. Likewise, a Christian carrying a sign proclaiming "God Hates Fags" can do so with easy self-assurance that he or she is doing the Lord's work. Jewish Israeli settlers have committed acts of utter viciousness against Palestinians in the West Bank, also with an air of divinely-inspired righteousness. Yet, and correctly, there is no follow-up anti-Halakha sentiment in the press, or suggestions to ban kosher delis.

Sharia is simply the code of Islamic law for living a Muslim life (see BBC's helpful primer). It is used as a set of guidelines and regulations addressing almost all aspects of life, from food to marriage to contracts, and so on. Its sources come from the Quran, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (the Hadith), and judgments issued by Islamic scholars, called fatwas. Sharia is an interpretive, faith-based practice encouraging and guiding followers toward a virtuous life as defined by Islam. And, no different from the rest of the world, adherence to the rules can at times be flexible. I couldn't help but take amused note of this recent headline in the Washington Post: "Despite Islamic fatwa, Pokemon Go is the rage of the Arab world."

Around 75 percent of Americans are Christians, citizens of a country that has made major contributions to the problems in the Middle East. It is at least conceivable that an anti-Christian or anti-American attitude would prevail in the Arab world. But this is not the case. As imaginable as it is that "they" would hate us, they don't. This should inspire us to concentrate on what violence like this is about, not what it isn't.

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