Both are wrong. The proper interpretation of Shariah law is a subject of vigorous debate within Islam. There are some who would freeze societies in the cultural practices of seventh-century Arabia. But there are others who identify a core of Islamic teaching that is separable from the cultural assumptions of the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad. Predominantly Muslim nations take a variety of approaches to the application of Islamic law, from theocracy to official secularism. In the Islamic world, there is no consensus on the nature of Shariah, and no pope to enforce one.
American Muslims, sometimes immigrants from oppressive societies, generally view their faith as a voluntary ethical and social practice. They seek only a reasonable public accommodation for their faith -- the ability to wear headscarves, or pray at work -- similar to the rights granted other religions.
So is Shariah law compatible with democracy? In the totalitarian version of the Taliban, it cannot be reconciled with pluralism. But if Shariah is interpreted as a set of transcendent principles of fairness and justice, applied in a variety of times, places and governmental systems, it more closely resembles the Christian and Jewish idea of social justice.
How does the American system deal with religious debates of such tremendous public consequence? If the sides remain peaceful, the government stays out of the argument. If some turn to violence -- either from the Christian identity movement or radical Islamism -- the government investigates, disrupts and imprisons the guilty. But it does little good to assume that the most radical position in the debate on Shariah is the most authentic, then single it out for criticism. What strategy could be more favorable to radicalism, which thrives by feeding a conflict of civilizations?
This controversy is complicated by its global context -- a war on terrorism in which our enemies are motivated, in part, by their conception of Islam. Even if this is a small percentage of the global Muslim community, it represents a large threat to America. This war is very real -- but we will lose it without Muslim allies. And we will lose those allies if America treats Islam as the enemy.
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