Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The former CIA agent turned pundit, Reuel Marc Gerecht, offers a rambling defense of Sharia (sort of) in the New Republic website. He doesn’t like what his conservative colleagues say about Sharia (which he keeps calling “The Holy Law”), but he doesn’t say what it is. Kant said something about one man milking a he-goat while another held a sieve. I don’t want to think about what Gerecht might be milking.

His conclusion:

Contrary to what one regularly reads on conservative websites, we are not yet losing this war. Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon and the determined proselytizing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and among Muslim immigrants in the West are efforts to turn back the tide. But modernity is relentless. The traumatic Westernization of Islam continues. That  Westernization led to the Islamic revolution in Iran and to Osama bin Laden, but it also leads, even more powerfully, to a world where Muslims—especially Muslim women—aspire to a more prosperous and democratic way of life. We have reasons to hope that Islam’s passage will be less bloody than our own, though we should prepare, as Gingrich constantly and wisely warns us, for its being worse.

But we shouldn’t see enemies where they are not. The Holy Law is, as it’s always been, what Muslims make of it. In the titanic struggle within Islam between those who fear modernity and those who embrace it, we would do well not to make the clergy our foes. They will go, as they always have done, where the majority of Muslims take them. Like Ayatollah Khomeini before him, bin Laden once thought that most Muslims would rise up to defend his cause. Both gentlemen were wrong. Westerners and most Muslims may not (yet) share with the same intensity and priority that many values, but we share enough to provide considerable hope that the “clash of civilizations” will end, as Grand Ayatollah Sistani no doubt wants it to, in a suspicious, at times tense, but peaceful and prosperous co-existence.

He objects in particular to Newt Gingrich and his warning about sharia:
....we still ought to be concerned when prominent American conservatives—and here I’m thinking first and foremost of Newt Gingrich—blur the line between militant Muslims and the everyday faithful. When Gingrich, whom I’ve long admired and had the pleasure of working with, gave a much-noted speech at the American Enterprise Institute in which he stated, “I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it. … I think it’s that straightforward and that real,” I could only say in response, “String Theory is dangerous”: Gingrich was looking for an explanation for the Islamic terrorist threat, but, like many on the right, looking in the wrong places. Neatly tying it all together, Gingrich and others have alighted upon the Muslim Holy Law, the Sharia, as the source of all that bedevils the Middle East, and us.

But what is Sharia, and what distinguishes it from Jewish Halakha, or English Common Law, or Church Canon Law?

One only has to listen to what Muslim legal scholars have to say about Sharia to make clear why it is incompatible with what we might call society founded on covenant, a concept that embraces both Jewish law and the Social Contract theory of the Enlightenment—that is, the sort of society in which democracy has a chance to flourish.

I reviewed Islamic jurisprudence (including what American Muslim legal scholars say on the topic) recently with regard to the issue of wife beating in a recent Spengler essay:
More than the Koran’s sanction of wife-beating, the legal grounds on which the Koran sanctions it reveals an impassable gulf between Islamic and Western law. The sovereign grants inalienable rights to every individual in Western society, of which protection from violence is foremost. Every individual stands in direct relation to the state, which wields a monopoly of violence. Islam’s legal system is radically different: the father is a “governor” or “administrator” of the family, that is, a little sovereign within his domestic realm, with the right to employ violence to control his wife and children. That is the self-understanding of modern Islam spelled out by Muslim-American scholars - and it is incompatible with the Western concept of human rights.

There it is: a bright line that divides Islamic from Western law.  As I explained,
Decisive in the above analysis of Surah 4:32[which establishes the legal basis for wife-beating in Islam] is the analogy between the husband and the head of a political subdivision or organization. The state in traditional society devolves its authority to the cells from which it is composed, starting with the family, which is a state in miniature, whose patriarch is a “governor” or “administrator”. Traditional society is organized like a nested set of Russian

dolls: the clan is the family writ large, the tribe is an extension of the clan, the state is an alliance of the tribes, and the relationship of citizen and sovereign is reproduced at each level.

That is why traditional society is incompatible organically with the first principal of law in modern liberal democracy, namely that the state wields the monopoly of violence. Sharia in principle cannot be adapted to the laws of modern democratic states, for it is founded on the deeply-ingrained notion that the family is the state in miniature and that the head of family may employ violent compulsion just as does the state.

In other words, wife-beating (and by extension honor killings and so forth) derive from fundamental legal principles in Muslim, the pillars upon which Sharia stands. They are not leftovers of traditional society that can be jettisoned in an updated version. Remove them, and there is no reason for Sharia to exist in the first place.

What on earth is Gerecht talking about? Without addressing how Muslims understand Sharia, this sort of discussion becomes ill-informed opinion-mongering.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles