• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

"Shariah: The Threat to America": A Commendable Worry Badly Addressed

The Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., recently released a report called Shariah: The Threat to America that sounds the alarm against fifth-column Muslims within and anti-American Muslims beyond America’s borders. Penned by an elite team culled from the ranks of America’s soldiers, diplomats, politicians, and spies, it pronounces shari’ah (the code of Islamic law that governs all of life) to be the great threat of our times similar to communism in the previous generation. Indeed, it draws many parallels between the two threats and calls on American leaders to exercise the same relentless animosity toward shari’ah that their hero, Ronald Reagan, showed toward communism.

I sympathize with much of the report’s concern. After 9/11, no one doubts that there are Muslims of extreme beliefs and practices who act as enemies of the American state and of many American values, just as some are enemies of the United Kingdom, Canada, Europe, and other “western” (I prefer the term “northwestern”) nations.

A friend of mine wrote to me about the report recently and asked for a response. I’m not a foreign policy expert nor am I an expert on Islam. So I will leave detailed examination of the report to such people.

But I didn’t have to read much of the report to spot some very serious problems in it. In fact, the report shows itself in some key ways to be not only anti-Islamic in far too sweeping a way, but anti-Christian, too. And if I’m right about that, then implementation of its recommendations would be a Very Bad Thing indeed.

Here is my response:


I didn’t have to read more than a dozen pages to realize that this document is pretty harmful: harmful to Christian values, harmful to American values, and harmful to Christians and Americans, let alone Muslims in the U.S. and in other countries.

One of the reasons that it is so harmful is that it isn’t crazy and it isn’t wrong to voice a fear about certain Muslims doing certain things in the name of certain interpretations of shari’ah. I share that fear and I am concerned that there is ‘way too much sentimentality and wishful thinking among many North American citizens, opinion shapers and politicians when it comes to dealing with truly dangerous people here, there, and wanting to come here from there.

But the report is fatally flawed in several major respects that occur in its opening pages. I contend that these basic problems compromise everything else it says so badly that they render the document useless at best and dangerous at worst.

Before I get to those respects, however, we can note that the authors of the document include distinguished members of the American armed forces, intelligence community, diplomatic corps, and more. But look who is absent: Anyone with similar credentials in the study of Islam. You might think it would be helpful to stock such a group with one or, better, two or three experts particularly in the history and contemporary nature of Islamic law and in a wide range of Muslim-majority countries. But I can’t find any such person identified in this document.

(There is another central conceptual problem right up front, actually. There is only one officially Islamic country in the world, I believe: Saudi Arabia. All the other “Muslim countries” are, at best, “Islam-influenced” or “Muslim-majority” countries. Prince Ghazi bin-Muhammad of Jordan–who himself has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in the study of literature and another Ph.D. from the renowned Al-Azhar University in Islamic philosophy–reminded me of that during our Christian-Muslim theological dialogue at Yale a couple of years ago. He said that if some of us Christians don’t want Muslims to think of America as simply a “Christian nation” and thus don’t want Muslims to blame what they don’t like about American foreign policy or domestic behaviour on Christianity, we ought to be careful to make the same distinctions about Muslims.” That’s a crucial point to make sometimes. The report doesn’t seem to make it. Those other countries are just “Muslim.”)

If the authors had included an Islamic specialist in their ranks and if they had included a Christian with some ability at social ethics to boot (!), they would not have made these fundamental mistakes and those that follow.

The report contends that shari’ah is unchanging and no new interpretation can be considered. Yes, that’s what the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and other conservative groups say. But lots of Muslims disagree. And so many have so disagreed over so many years that Muslim-majority countries have a quite diverse patchwork of laws and legal systems, most of them including significant elements of Western-style laws and courts. (See any reliable encyclopedia article on “shari’ah” on this point. And compare Turkey with Pakistan with Indonesia with Saudi Arabia with Syria with Egypt with Iran.)

Indeed, lots of Muslims can come to the West and enjoy it without completely privatizing their faith (see below). Similarly, Christians can both participate in pluralism, even justify it (as I do in my book Making the Best of It), without giving up their ideal of the Kingdom of God eventually ruling all–but only via persuasion or the coercion of Christ’s return, not by forcible human imperialism.

Yet many Christian-majority countries, even most of them, until pretty recently believed in imposing our civilization/values/religion at the point of a sword or gun as part of colonialism, or “making the world safe for democracy,” or the like. Muslims have been exposed to modernity and modern pluralism much less than Western Christians have been. I suggest it is much too early to conclude that many more of them cannot and will not make similar adjustments in their theological ethics over time, particularly when some already have done so.

The report suggests that adherence to shari’ah is optional for Muslims and that any Muslim who seeks to adhere to it and practice it is a threat to America. “Good” Muslims, then, don’t propound shari’ah while “bad” Muslims do. But to say so is just obviously wrong, since shari’ah means “the path to the water” and is simply the accumulation of authoritative statements of the way to be a faithful Muslim. To not adhere to shari’ah is like a Christian saying that he’ll be a Christian but he is not going to follow any of the Church’s teachings about theology and ethics.

Weirdly, the report’s authors show that they actually know better, at least partly, for in their preliminary remarks they speak of “good” Muslims as those who restrict shari’ah to “private” observance. But they soon drop that distinction and it’s either abandon shari’ah entirely or be called a threat to America.

As I have said, shari’ah, as the generic term for Islamic codification of right attitudes, beliefs, and practices, cannot possibly be restricted to private behaviour–just as Christian ethics cannot be. But this divide between public and private, which is paralleled by the divide between behaviour and ideas (you can believe that abortion or homosexuality is wrong, but don’t act on that outside the private sphere–even in, say, the hiring of only Christians by Christian charities or the denunciation of homosexuality in public), is a non- and even anti-Christian entailment of the secularist or deistic strains of the Enlightenment. Those strains continue to affect many Americans today, and they seriously curtail authentic Christian practice. Indeed, they are the ideals trumpeted nowadays by the likes of atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, which ought to give Christians as well as Muslims serious pause.

So this report is exposed as being both anti-Muslim–except for very liberal, or inconsistent, Muslims who confine their Islam to private life–and anti-Christian–except for very liberal, or inconsistent, Christians who confine their Christianity to private life. Surely such a report cannot be taken to guide American domestic and foreign policies!

As a sort of evidentiary appendix, I have clipped some phrases from the introductory pages and will comment on them briefly:

Though it certainly has spiritual elements, it would be a mistake to think of shariah as a “religious” code in the Western sense because it seeks to regulate all manner of behavior in the secular sphere – economic, social, military, legal and political. (6)

This is true. One might quibble and say that shari’ah, as a code of ethics, doesn’t “seek” anything. But it does address life beyond the private spheres of belief, devotional practice, and personal morality. And it doesn’t see any such thing as a “secular sphere.” There’s just life, and the one who properly submits to God (= “muslim”) seeks to honour God in every part of life. Sound familiar?

What the authors are rightly concerned about, to be sure, is that in many understandings of shari’ah there is no room for pluralism, or even much in the way of tolerance of non-Muslims and non-Muslim values and practices. That fact certainly worries me, too.

I would also say, however, that there is no room for pluralism in dimensions of Christian ethics, either, since in one important Biblical theme there is either the Kingdom of God or there is the kingdom of “this world”/humanity/Satan. Yet considerable Christian reflection has helped us see that we live in the time between the times, between Christ’s first and second comings, when the Kingdom of God is contesting the dominion of ungodly powers. In this penultimate stage, as Bonhoeffer puts it, we confront pluralism and, indeed, can see God using it for his own purposes as a temporarily helpful expedient. That’s how many Muslims see things, too: They long for the eventual governance of the world by God’s good principles (= shari’ah), but they see him sovereignly working things out through pluralism in the meanwhile. I don’t see that stance as threatening at all, and such interpretations of Islam need to be encouraged by us, not lumped in and condemned as evil.

Shariah is the crucial fault line of Islam’s internecine struggle. (6)

Well, no, it isn’t. Let’s draw up a better map.

First, there is a spectrum of opinion among Muslims about the relationship of shari’ah and other ways of seeing and doing things. Better, I would say, to sketch the matter thus:

extremists, who seek to impose shari’ah by any means possible;

absolutists, who seek to impose shari’ah by any legitimate political means;

moderates, who seek to impose shari’ah by persuasion and who support pluralism as an intermediate stage in political history;

liberals, who reinterpret shari’ah in a whatever way squares with contemporary reason and experience;

mystics, who allegorize shari’ah to confine it to private spiritual experience; and

assimilationists, who essentially conform to western values and see shari’ah as tribal lore to be honoured symbolically and selectively but not as the governing rule of any part of life.

Second, the political dividing line thus lies elsewhere, between the absolutists and the moderates, and not between the moderates and the liberals (which is where the report draws it). If we draw it where the report draws it, then those of us Christians who want to bring Christian values to bear on public life in any way are also apparently seditious.

For these ideologues, shariah is not a private matter. Adherents see the West as an obstacle to be overcome, not a culture and civilization to be embraced, or at least tolerated. It is impossible, they maintain, for alternative legal systems and forms of governments peacefully to coexist with the end-state they seek. (6)

As I have indicated, these phrases jumble together aspirations and attitudes of moderates and those of absolutists and extremists.

What cannot credibly be denied, however, is that: a. shariah is firmly rooted in Islam’s doctrinal texts, and it is favored by influential Islamic commentators, institutions, and academic centers (for example, the faculty at al-Azhar University in Cairo, for centuries the seat of Sunni learning and jurisprudence); b. shariah has been, for over a half-century, lavishly financed and propagated by Islamic regimes (particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran), through the offices of disciplined international organizations (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood); and c. due to the fact that Islam lacks a central, universally recognized hierarchical authority (in contrast to, say, the Roman Catholic papacy), authentic Islamic moderates and reformers have an incredibly difficult task in endeavoring to delegitimize shariah in the community where it matters most: the world’s Muslims. (7)

…the shariah system is totalitarian. It imposes itself on all aspects of civil society and human life, both public and private (7)

The report thus sometimes uses the generic term “shari’ah” to mean “the intention to impose shari’ah by any (legitimate or not) means possible on America and the rest of the world.” To say so is to commit what philosophers call a level mistake: wanting to impose something is not the same as that something. And it’s also to commit a category mistake: shari’ah has been interpreted, as I have pointed out, in a variety of ways relative to western values and practices. For some Muslims, yes, things are just as the report says. But for many others, living in a pluralistic society like the U.S. is not a problem, but a delight–including moderates who hope that one day the whole world will become rightly related to God, which for them means, of course, Muslim. That latter hope is “totalitarian,” then, only in exactly the same way that Christianity is “totalitarian” as it longs for the return of Jesus and the worldwide acknowledgement of him as Lord. So we Christians cannot want to oppose that kind of aspiration. But the authors of this report do, and that’s why I would say this report is anti-Christian as well as anti-Islamic, and in just the same ways.

Those who today support shariah and the establishment of a global Islamic state (caliphate) are perforce supporting objectives that are incompatible with the U.S. Constitution, the civil rights the Constitution guarantees and the representative, accountable government it authorizes. In fact, shariah’s pursuit in the United States is tantamount to sedition. (8)

So here’s the rub: “support” is too vague a word to guide politics, especially the politics of loyalty and treason. “Support” can mean from “vague aspiration” all the way down to “doing whatever it takes.” That’s pretty irresponsible writing when you’re attempting to alter American policy in the strongest possible language and with the strongest possible sanctions implied.

It’s exciting to say such things, but it is exciting the right passion (defense of the U.S. and of western values) against many of the wrong people. Yes, some Muslims clearly are harmful to the U.S. (and Canada…) in both intent and practice. They should not be allowed in to our countries, and certainly not welcomed as immigrants. (And I wish my own government and my own country’s intelligentsia were more alert to such a valid concern.) But this report makes this good point in a seriously bad way, which, if allowed to guide policy, will continue the discrimination against Muslims who are also good Americans that is evident in the misguided furore over Park51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque.

And it will reinforce this preposterous and dangerous secularist tradition of trying to keep religion out of public life entirely, which is bad, of course, for us Christians as well as for Muslims and others.

Here’s hoping the next report on the implications of religion for American politics will include at least a few experts on the former to help out the experts on the latter.