Editorial: For Whom the Law Tolls

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew- or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you – until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

-Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1960

Attempts of terrorism conducted by a small group of extremists should not overshadow the strong links and bonds between the Jewish and Muslim communities in the United States, particularly here in St. Louis.  The Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis stands by the principle that any attempted attack on a religious community is an attack against all religions.  Indeed, the future of interfaith relations and cooperation is much stronger than the destructive ideology of the misled extremists.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

-Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, in response to the recent cargo bombing attempt

In the November elections, voters in the State of Oklahoma overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional measure that would ban courts from considering international or Islamic “Sharia” law in making decisions.

This, of course, was a symbolic statement, and not meaningful at any practical level.  Judicial decisions in Oklahoma, depending on the court and issues involved, are interpreted according to municipal, county, state and federal constitutions, statutes,  regulations and ordinances. No religious institution’s code of conduct (including Jewish halacha) is above the civil law.

The symbolism was intended to send a strong and, we suspect, extremely hateful statement to Muslims: “We don’t take kindly to your type around here.” This was not received all too well by peace-abiding Muslims who live in the state, or elsewhere, for that matter. And who can blame them? Does anyone really believe that the one percent of Oklahoma’s population that is Muslim was going to lead a revolt in favor of the practice of religious law? We suspect that those who are supporting families, for instance, might be a tad more interested in working to provide shelter, clothing and food for their children, just like the vast preponderance of the rest of us.

This is ugly stuff, folks. Extremely nasty.  It is a perfect example of what the tyranny of the majority can do in its haste for vengeance and scapegoating, particularly in tough economic times.

Think we’re exaggerating? According to the NewsOK website, sponsor State Sen. Anthony Sykes, referring to the federal suit filed challenging the measure, “said Thursday he was saddened that [Council on American-Islamic Relations Executive Director Muneer] Awad filed a lawsuit intended to thwart the will of Oklahoma voters.”

Thwart the will of the majority. Last we checked, the Bill of Rights was intended for this express purpose, to derail mob mentalities in times when public discourse rises to fever pitch.  A federal judge has already taken notice of the possibility of a legitimate challenge under the United States Constitution by issuing a temporary restraining order against enforcement of the new provision. A hearing is set for Nov. 22.

Lest you suggest this is not selective and vindictive “justice” on the part of Oklahoma voters, we don’t recall seeing any such retaliatory measure proposed in the aftermath of the actions of a former Roman Catholic, Timothy McVeigh, in bombing the Oklahoma City federal courthouse. Yet with no indication of any specific issues of Islamic legal interpretation pending in Oklahoma, its citizens saw fit to cast a stigmatic net around the entire population of 2.5 million American Muslims. Not the most logical conclusion we’ve ever seen reached.

Why would anyone in our Jewish community have the comfort that we aren’t the next target of a Sykes-like referendum? Oh, you say, because Jews aren’t identified as committing terrorist acts like we’ve seen from radical Islamists in recent years.

Dream on. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel (perpetuated in major part by radical Islamists) is just such an effort.  Here’s how it works: Subtly lay the focus on Israel in its treatment of Palestinians; then transfer the venom from Israel to Zionists, and voila!, you have the finger being pointed at all Jews. It’s that simple.  

The fact that the BDS movement originates from Islamists provides no justification to go off on Muslims as a whole. As the above-quote from our local Islamic Foundation demonstrates, the acts of a tiny fraction of the Muslim world community are not representative of all American Muslims, not by a longshot. And by continuing to demonize Islam as the voters of Oklahoma have done, we push the vast law-abiding majority further from our mainstream and toward the corners of frustration, anxiety and ultimately resentment toward an unwelcoming community.

So it may be tempting as a Jew in the early 21st century to pile onto the Muslim bashing in supporting the Oklahoma provision. It may make you feel better. It may make you feel like you’re supporting Israel and world Jewry more fully and completely.  But by casting a net of aspersions around all Muslims, what you’re actually doing is setting up a construct to allow the future finger to point in a completely different direction – ours.