The first thing I wanted to know from Bhala was whether he thought, on the basis of his years of studying Shari'a, any of the fear that some non-Muslim Americans have about Shari'a is justified.
"No, but I think the inauthentic doctrine of the Shari'a that are wrongly promulgated by violent extremists and violent extremists organizations (VEOs) are a source of concern. One theme in the book is how to differentiate authentic from inauthentic Islamic law. As we know, there are a lot of VEOs. . .that take an authentic precept of the Shari'a and distort for their own evil ends. . .That is something to fear. What's really to fear is misunderstanding and a lack of education in some Muslim communities."
It's important, he said, for people of good will to try to undermine the points used by the extremists who are recruiting others into their organizations. For instance, wealthy extremists exploit deep poverty. So the likes of Osama bin Laden will approach poor, marginalized people and "will go and try to recruit from that pool." So by integrating the poor into our social systems and culture, we can take away one of the recruiting grounds, Bhala said.
Indeed, our military forces, including special operations forces, are trying to make places like Afghanistan and Iraq safe and secure so that right-thinking, traditionalist Muslim leaders can succeed "and so that a vibrant, peaceful debate can occur in these Muslim communities."
Another thing we have to fear, he said, "is ossification of the Islamic legal system. If it is closed and remains closed to other sources. . .then the system is really going to be more and more rigid and dogmatic and rely more and more on the fundamental(ist) sources, and you're going to get even more extreme interpretations." (And, he said, the debate about this is going in both directions within Islam.)
I also asked Bhala about the movement in a dozen or so states to try to adopt anti-Shari'a laws that would forbid state judges from considering Shari'a concepts in their judgments.
"These bills are based on ignorance," he said. "The American legal system -- many specific concepts in it -- owes a debt, either direct or indirect, to the Shari'a. We have. . .imported some concepts or some debates into our legal system that also are found in the Shari'a, and the Shari'a long predates English law from which our system more directly comes.
"So it's like banishing the blood of your great-great-great-great-great-grandparents from your veins. You can't do it. So it's intellectually ignorant and disingenuous to do that.
"It is also bad for business. I think this is a very important point that a lot of people miss -- these legisators who are trying to do this. One of the reasons why New York or England are commonly chosen in choice-of-law clauses in major contracts, whether it's financial deals or deals to transport goods or services, is of course the laws of New York and England are well known and they're major jurisdictions and they're rule-of-law jurisdictions. But another reason is they're highly tolerant jurisdictions of different legal traditions. So you can have in some of these more progressive cosmopolitan places. . .(the opportunity to say) we want the law of another country to apply to this part of our contract. . ."
The question for America's state legislators, he said, is whether they want to attract more business into their states. If yes, "they should give more flexibility in choosing foreign or international legal paradigms. . .To ban one that is well known and well regarded and has been around for centuries is bad for business."
Another reason banning Shari'a is bad for business, Bhala said, is the matter of reciprocity. Which is to say that if states in the U.S. ban any consideration of Shari'a law, judges in other countries could say, "you guys don't recognize Shari'a law in Kansas so why should I recognize Kansas law in my court here?"
"It's absolutely thoughtless" to adopt such state laws, he concluded. "I personally come down really hard on these efforts, for intellectual and business reasons."
In the end, Bhala said, his delving into Islam and Shari'a has strengthened his own Catholic faith, partly because he's found areas of that faith that required him to do additional research and introspection to figure out what the church really teaches and whether he believes that.
In fact, in my own experience that's almost always the case in serious interfaith dialogue. It doesn't threaten faith but, rather, helps to confirm it.
But, as he noted, interfaith connections also give people a better understanding of faiths other than their own, too, especially when there's long-term contact that creates true friends.
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THE FALL OF A MEGACHURCH AND ITS PASTOR
On the chance that you missed Sunday's excellent story by Kansas City Star reporters Judy L. Thomas and Laura Bauer on the troubles of megachurch pastor Jerry Johnston, click here. It's a sad, cautionary tale about misplaced values and inflated ego. And it makes me wonder how people get drawn into the influence of charismatic preachers who seem not to practice what they preach.