Religious Freedom And Sharia Law
Wed, 09/21/2011
Jewish Week Online Columnist
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

In Paris, last week, when a Muslim cab driver picked me up I noticed a slight discomfort came over me. I realized, at that moment, that American religious fanatics had succeeded at convincing me to be afraid. Religion, at its best, furthers deep value formation and creates bridges and connections whereas religion at its worst is destructive and spreads fear throughout society. There is a growing religious fanaticism, with diverse manifestations, that seeks to promote fear of the other and that fear almost inevitability leads to hate. This fear and hate is unfortunately not absent from major segments of the Jewish communal discourse.

There is a conspiracy theory in circulation that Muslim leaders are attempting to replace American law with the Sharia (Islamic law). This fear has escalated to a level where as many as thirteen states are considering or have passed bills that would formally prohibit the application of Sharia. In Oklahoma, 70 percent of the electorate approved this amendment to the state’s Constitution: “The [Oklahoma] courts…when exercising their judicial authority…shall not consider international laws or Sharia Law.”
The Orthodox Union has spoken out against this discrimination, as has the Anti Defamation League. National director of the ADL Abe Foxman has written, “The anti-Sharia bills are more than a matter of unnecessary public policy. These measures are, at their core, predicated on prejudice and ignorance. They constitute a form of camouflaged bigotry that enables their proponents to advance the idea that finds fault with the Muslim faith and paints all Muslim Americans as foreigners and anti-American crusaders.”
David Yerushalmi, an Orthodox lawyer in Brooklyn, has made it his mission to show that Sharia sanctions militant jihadism, arguing that “because jihad necessarily advocates violence and the destruction of our representative, constitution-based government, the advocacy of jihad by a Sharia authority presents a real and present danger.”
To be sure, I am personally very concerned about many messages coming out of the Islamic community. I’m also concerned about how Sharia is being applied in extreme and dangerous ways around the world. There are radicals who choose a fundamentalist approach to Islamic jurisprudence. This is happening in parts of Iran and Saudia Arabia, and in radical groups like the Taliban, but discrimination is not the appropriate response.
Maimonides made it clear not only that Islam is not an idolatrous faith, but rather that the Jewish people can learn a lot from Muslim thought (Maachalot 11:7). In addition to learning from our Muslim brethren we should commit to supporting their autonomy.
Furthermore, the banning of Islamic law is a violation of the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and of the establishment clause, by giving pre-eminence to one religion over another. All Americans should be afraid of the implications of this movement upon their own personal liberties.
Jewish, Christian, and Muslim legal tribunals have operated in the U.S., presiding over matters of religious ritual and internal disputes, in cooperation with the government courts for over half a century. Certain cases, due to their religious nature, are not able to be brought before the secular courts due to the separation of religion and state. If religious communities can’t have their own private jurisdiction, where are they supposed to deal with their most pressing day-to-day issues? Banning religious arbitration leaves them without options.
We should never forget the real threat of terrorism motivated by Muslim fundamentalists, but as free-thinking American Jews we must learn to distinguish between real threats and false fear tactics.
What a powerful message it would send for the committed Jewish community, which has no lack of tension with the Muslim community, to commit to serve as defenders of religious freedom for all. It is precisely at a time of freedom such as now that we must safeguard these freedoms for all people. The biblical imperative, “Uvacharta Bachaim,” that we must choose is a direct mandate for expanding freedom and liberty to all. Now is the time to defend those under attack. We must do it for ourselves, for the sake of others, and to honor our core Jewish values.
Now more than ever, we need to challenge the conspiracy theories and ensure that we raise our moral voices to promote the freedom that we are so blessed with for all. It is not only religious communities that should feel concerned for religious freedom. Government and business should be disturbed since fear mongering destroys communal trust and the basic fabric of our society which hurts all. We all flourish in a culture of hope and collaboration not a culture of fear and isolation.
We cannot allow religion based on fear and hate to overcome a religion of love. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once said: “If God had given me two hearts, I could use one for hating and the other one for love. But since I was given only one heart, I have only room for love.”
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life and the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year doctoral student at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be coming out in early 2012. 


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No one is asking for a parallel system of criminal law where hadd punishments in Islam would replace U.S. or other countries' criminal law or violate in those jurisdictions established rules of public order and public morality. Some people want to be able to VOLUNTARILY use the civil law principles of shari'ah to settle matters that may be freely decided by contracting parties. In prinicple, the shari'ah "courts" they advocate are no different than existing arbitration bodies used for commercial disputes and religious "courts" used for personal disputes and religious rulings.

Jews have such bodies already in many places. They are called "beth din". Similar bodies also exist in the form of Roman Catholic and Anglican "canon law courts".

People ALREADY have the right to make private contracts on any basis they choose and to agree on how and who will arbritrate and decide disputes. When an arbitration body has public recognition, it allows parities to a dispute that has been settled by their freely chosen arbitrator to go to civil court if the losing party fails to meet his contractual commitment to abide by the arbitrator's decision. In such cases, the civil court judge will take judicial notice of the binding arbitration system and issue an enforceable court order for the arbitration decision to be upheld, UNLESS the arbitration decision is contrary to the jurisdictions civil laws or violates principles of public order or morality.

No civil court will confirm the arbitration decision of a beth din or an islamic shari'ah body that contravenes existing laws.

actually there is nothing to answer to a "rabbi" who found support of shariah in those words:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

there is a HUGE difference between free exercise of islam as a religious practice and applying shariah law into modern life.

I would say that shariah contradicts the Eight Amendment about cruel punishments (stoning, flogging, cutting hands, etc). and those who try to whitewash it, should start with reading of US Constitution.

I would also say that the Jewish shariah ie halakha contradicts the Eight Amendment about cruel punishments (stoning, flogging, cutting hands, etc). and those who try to whitewash it, should start with reading of US Constitution.

Wow, sad to see so much anger in the comments section. As an American Muslim with a diverse Muslim, Jewish, and Christian family, I really appreciate what you've written here. Forging bonds between our religious communities, as with others, is a singularly powerful move in countering discrimination, whether towards Muslims, Jews, or anyone else.

I see people here posting "google Islam" to find out what it's all about. If you want to get to know a people, get to know the people. There are interfaith opportunities all over this country, tons of service projects, men and women who open their places of worship and their homes alike. Why sift through the worst of the internet when you can get to know the best of humanity?

Thanks again, and best of luck with your studies.

Thank you for your comments. I agree that the internet is rarely a good place to go to have questions answered. I am Mormon (a Christian church that many on the internet tout as NOT Christian) I have seen outright lies said about us. I wish if people really wanted to know what we believe AND practice they would just visit our church or get to know us. What I really find ironic are those people who say, "you don't really know what your church teaches and believes. Have you read this or that?" Um, excuse me, but I go to church every single week. I read the scriptures in our church and the teachings given by our leaders DAILY. Yeah, I'm pretty sure I know what I believe AND what my religion teaches. But people who hear some video of a stranger they've never met, or listen to someone who was offended in our church tells me they know better than me what I believe. It's just ridiculous. I hate to see immature prejudice and idiocy of any kind. Thanks again for sharing.

I am shocked that not one of these comments is for the Rabbi. As someone who was born and raised in a Muslim country, I have never heard any encouragement be it from the government or mosque leaders calling to kill "infidels" It makes me sick to hear these people that "google" Islam or Muslims saying basically that the life goal of every Muslim is to "kill infidels"!!!
It's the furthest from the truth. While growing up, we had Jewish Friends and Christian friends. U.S. media has successfully painted this awful picture about Muslims and ignorant, uneducated, close-minded Americans bought it!!!

Thank you for your assistance in culling corruption across the globe by beginning closest things to you. Indeed religious fear is taught. In addition fear is one of the top ways that bad cults control.
What one must realize that Christian religious fanatics are not all Christians, but individual people. The same is true with all other religions and the fanatics that go with any religious devotion.

Moreover, being orthodox or fundamental is not the same as being fanatic.

To Quote Tom Cochrane:

Lunatic fringe
I know you're out there
You're in hiding
And you hold your meetings
We can hear you coming
We know what you're after
We're wise to you this time
We won't let you kill the laughter

Until I looked that song up for it's lyrics, I always thought it was about what it is like being a star. I did not know he wrote it concerning a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the 1970s. And here I thought it was just a warning to the dangers of idolization of fame! Nevertheless, this song is timeless and boundless to any.

The Rambam (Maimonides) wrote:

"These Muslims [Ishmaelim] are not in any way idolators. [Idolatry] has
already been removed from their mouths and their hearts, and they unify
G-d in the appropriate manner without any admixture [of idolatrous
beliefs]." (Responsa 448)

He also said:

"All the words ... of this Ishmaelite [i.e., Muhammad] ... are only to make straight the path for the messianic king and to prepare the whole world to serve the Lord together. As it is said: 'For then I will change the speech of the
peoples to a pure speech so that all of them shall call on the name of
the Lord and serve him with one accord' (Zephaniah 3:9)."

Rabbi David Rosen of the AJC wrote:

"On the basis of the position of the Meiri (Bet Habehirah, Bava Kama,
113b) recognizing both Muslims and Christians as monotheistic believers
bound by the minimal moral code, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in
Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kuk ruled (Iggeret 89;
Mishpat-Cohen 63) that Muslims and Christians living in a predominant
Jewish society must be treated as gerim toshavim, i.e., with full civil
liberties, just like Jews."

Those who argue that the Rambam's words were a mere subterfuge to permit the otherwise impermissible do a grave injustice to his blessed memory and that of the other sages who have given us guidance on this question.

When the Rambam wrote that Muslims are "of the congregation of the Monotheists", he meant what he said. Muslims and Jews are descended from Avraham Avinu and with him have no G-d but Elohim-Eloha-Elaha-Allah.

The fact that in some times and in some places, Muslims have persecuted Jews and Jews have persecuted Muslims does not change the fundamental truth that Jews and Muslims are cousins. When they persist in stoking the flames of hate among themselves, they dishonor their father Avraham Avinu and violate the commandment given by ha-Shem to Moshe:

כבד את אביך. (Honor your father ....)

First, I would like to thank the Rabbi for reaffirming my belief and trust in the Jewish community. It is sad to see such hatred and criticism by people that have been persecuted and discriminated against themselves. The people that are fueling the Islamaphobia are anti-religion people. And if we don't stand up now for religious freedom for all, we should expect to be stripped of all religious freedom, and then what? What is this country with out "justice and liberty for all"

and btw...

1) Sharia law is already being practiced in the US. The Middle East is full of dictators and kings that are corrupt and do not practice sharia law. Sharia law simply consists of division of power and true democracy. Thomas Jefferson held the Quran in high esteem and regarded it as a legal text and referred to it when drafting the constitution. Do the research, its all there. He was also the first president to hold a dinner in Ramadan for a Muslim ambassador.

2)The Quran and the Prophet preached peace and tolerance toward all religions. He often consulted with Rabbis and Priests who also held him in high esteem. When the Muslims ruled there were no genocides nor holocausts. These acts of terror are devised and acted out by faithless people that may claim to be of one religion or another.

3)Muslims risked their lives to help protect Jews escape persecution during WWII.

4)Muslims consider Jews and Christians as fellow People of the Book and not infidels. Infidels are pagans and idol worshippers. The misinformation regarding seeking the infidels was only relevant during the time it was revealed and should not be taken out of context. God ordered David to kill Goliath and made him King just like he ordered Prophet Muhammad to protect and defend his people.

5)The Quran prescribes exact laws regarding the humane treatment of Prisoners of War, not harming women, children or elders. Just like any other religion people pick and choose to their liking.

6)You can name as many mohamed terrorist as you like, but make sure you also name the other rapists, murderers, women beaters, child molesters, prisoner abusing, etc. non-Muslim. You can criticize the person, just don't criticize the religion. The colombine shooting, the oklahoma city bombing, the money laundering/organ selling/government bribing, the ponzy schemes- all these scandals do not affect the religion/culture of the offender. Bad people do bad things for many reasons including money/black mail.

--Sharia law simply consists of division of power and true democracy.--

could you please list "true democracies" where shariah law is enforced?

--He often consulted with Rabbis and Priests who also held him in high esteem--

Oh! so, it'll be easy to support it with a quote from Quran or any other source :)

--Muslims risked their lives to help protect Jews escape persecution during WWII--

yep, just give us a number of those brave muslims and don't forget to notice countries where they lived. and then compare that number with number or muslim suicide bombers came to Israel

Good for you Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, for identifying the feeling of fear inside you, then realizing it's origin, and correcting your thoughts. We all have been influenced by media and rumors, and unscholarly discussion about Islam and Islamic law. Our emotional response is the first and strongest, and very few have managed to overcome this and rationally weigh the sources of information and make a sound deduction such as your own.
Fear is a tactic used to supress us from using our thinking skills. I am very glad you are able to see the positive and important purpose of faith and religion. And I am very glad you are knowledgable about the value of Islam to even non-Muslims. At the same I see you are knowledgable that the First Amendment should and would prevail. Thank you for sharing your personal experience, and thank you for addressing this fear-mongering in our society.
Keep up your scholarly work.

Look up "the Golden age of the Jews" and the haters will note that it was when they were under Otthoman rule. i am not saying that all was 100% great, but just look it up. also, when jews were koed from Europe, most ended up and were welcomed in Muslim countries. They still celebrate their arrival in Turkey to this day.


I appreciate your thoughtful and courageous words. There are many disturbing interpretations of Shariah law being implemented around the world. But the majority of Muslims all over the world, don't support these interpretations. American Muslims are even less supportive of them and have no desire to force our Faith onto Americans.

I'm sad to see that hate and bigotry cross all cultures and faiths. If I belong to a religion that promotes terrorism, then Jews must the control media and banking. And if you don't believe me, do some research on the internet or ask your epistemology teacher.

It's amazing to what lengths people will go to justify their hate.

The Rambam quoted by this "Rabbi" spent his whole working career mitigating the damage of Islamic persecution, determining xtianity and Islam were not Idolatrous was key to the rambams famous and controversial ruling that jews could "play" muslim to avoid being killed, if Islam were idolworship, the separdic jews would have had to choose being slain rather than pretending to convert.

Obviously the rabbi does not realize that the goal of determining whether or not Islam or Xtianity were inherantly idolatrous was because idolators are treated in many ways differently in halacha, things that jews are forbidden by rabbinic law to non-idol worhipping gentiles are forbbiden by divine ordinance in torah with actual idolators and are more severe violations and handled differently. I suggest this rabbi study tractate avoda tzara, since this is obviously an area which his knowledge is lacking. The Rambam or any religious jew for that matter that decribes these faiths as non-idol worshipping are far from giving them a seal of approval, they are just covering one area of the Universal Noahide laws. Additionally the Rambams major practical contribution to the world as a working rabbi, was his mitigation through responsa to sephardic jews throughout the muslim world being persecuted. One of his most famous ruling being that jews could "pretend" to be muslim to save thier life (a key area of importance being the very ruling that islam is not idol worship, for if it were jews would be forced to accept death).

Also the rabbis knowledge of constitutional law, sharia or both are lacking. As apposed to Halacha, which all jews see as binding on jews only, and in todays times are universally obligations that only religious jews take upon themselves as part of thier choice to live as g-d fearing jews, sharia, by its very nature is one that is to be enforced not only on all muslims as a primary goal of Islamic doctrine, but much of sharia law deals with the subjugation of non-muslims, through taxation and religious oppression (both areas the Rambam dealt with in his responsa) therefor unlike halacha which affects nobody but jews who choose to keep it, sharia law is by its very nature in conflict with the constitution because not only is it a form of religious practice not covered by the first ammendment, it is a religious practice that does the very thing the first ammendment was written to defend us against.

I am shocked that this is the sort of thing being taught to already at-risk jews in the secular colleges.

The spread of Sharia law, Islamic law, across the Middle East and in the nations in the West coupled with the ever-expanding Moslem populations around the world is setting the stage for Bible prophecy to be fulfilled.

European leaders have been very concerned with the ever-expanding Moslem populations in their nations and have been confused as how to handle this phenomenon. Now, in these highly populated Moslem areas, there has surfaced a new phenomenon, the demand for Sharia law, the Islamic law of the land, to be implemented and these Moslem communities want this done right now. Sharia law is the law of the land that would rule every nation in the world if Islamic leaders are successful in bringing about a worldwide caliphate, an Islamic kingdom on earth with everyone subject to Allah, the Islamic god.

Ancient Jewish prophets, though not using the words Islam or Sharia, actually spoke to the issue under discussion in their volumes of pre-written history. Joel in Joel 2:3-4 spoke of a mighty militia, a Moslem militia, the largest the world has ever seen, heading towards Jerusalem to destroy the Jewish state. Daniel 11:40-44, Ezekiel 38 and Psalm 83 all list nations that will join this mighty Moslem militia to destroy the Jewish state of Israel.

The spread of Sharia law as the law of the land in more and more nations in our world today is indeed setting the stage for Bible prophecy to be fulfilled.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is apparently uninformed about the topic despite his good intentions about defending religious freedom. No one in the anti-Sharia movement is advocating denying Muslims the right to practice their faith or apply Sharia in their own homes and mosques. The issue here is concerns the encroachment of Sharia principles in the US justice system by well meaning judges, which for instance, has the effect of giving Muslim women less rights than they would enjoy as American citizens under the US Constitution.

True compassion for our Muslim brethren requires that we speak out against those aspects of their faith and customs (such as Female genital mutilation) which are incompatible with the ideals of equality and freedom we enjoy as Americans.

Female Genital Mutilation is a cultural practice and has no basis in the Islamic religion.

Also there has been no clear evidence to show that Sharia Law is to be used as the source of justice in America by any specific Mulim Group. Do your research before assuming anything

Show me one verse from the Quran or any book with authentic Islamic teachings calling for any mutilation of female genitalia

See "A Response to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz" @

"I realized, at that moment, that American religious fanatics had succeeded at convincing me to be afraid."

Let me suggest that your reaction, dear "6th year doctoral student at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology" came not from the bad "American religious fanatics" but from the news reports in the nice newspapers describing the goings on in the Middle East.

As an epistemologist, you are obligated to consider those when determining Moslem attitudes, not your Jewish instincts of politically correct goody-goodiness, which are totally irrelevant to the task.

I would further suggest -- as a practical advice -- that you never show this article to your epistemology professor at Columbia -- since it shouts, loud and clear, that for all your 6 years of study, your know nothing about epistemology, and deserve a grade not higher than F.

The rabbi's comments are indeed summed up in his introductory homiletic. "In Paris, last week, when a Muslim cab driver picked me up I noticed a slight discomfort came over me. I realized, at that moment, that American religious fanatics had succeeded at convincing me to be afraid."

A normal person might more soberly realize that they were afraid because 17,780 some jihadist attacks have been committed by muslims just since 9/11. These... for honey, wine, and virgins- the Islamic idea of heavenly reward for slaughtering infidels- meaning everyone not muslim.

A normal person might think... hmmm it's not some isolated incident(s) but rather that There are indeed "multiple attacks upon 'infidels just here in the US, including Naser Abdo, the would-be second Fort Hood jihad mass murderer; and Khalid Aldawsari, the would-be jihad mass murderer in Lubbock, Texas; and Muhammad Hussain, the would-be jihad bomber in Baltimore; and Mohamed Mohamud, the would-be jihad bomber in Portland; and Nidal Hasan, the successful Fort Hood jihad mass-murderer; and Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square jihad mass-murderer; and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, the Arkansas military recruiting station jihad murderer; and Naveed Haq, the jihad mass murderer at the Jewish Community Center in Seattle; and Mohammed Reza Taheri-Azar, the would-be jihad mass murderer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas airplane jihad bomber; and so many other Islamic jihad murderers and would-be murderers in America, all of whom (along with many others) were inspired and motivated, by their own admission, by Islamic texts and teachings.
And of course, the studies that show that 80% or more of mosques in america preach and teach hatred for infidels. Or maybe just this one more modest occurrence back in 1789 when the first jihad attack by normative islam came upon the first ships that sailed out of the nascent US and enslaved sailors, stole goods and were explained by the muslim ambassador to both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams:… "that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make
slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise.
The rabbi is historically unawares, and his tolerance is the same tolerance that would have people obligated to be empty of genuine feeling based upon history, endless preached threats and commands for submission and surrender or else.
Not to mention it is absurd and cowardly and an attack upon others who genuinely support human rights and dignity, unlighted the rabbi who merely uses them as props for his denial and appeasement.

You write good stories but your heart is colluded with sin and hate for Muslims. You have mis-quoted the Holy Quran out of context and used it to advance your own misguided agenda. Its ironic that as a Jewish minority whose fore-fathers faced so much racism and discrimination in Germany and in the good old USA, you conitnue to support the bigots and extremists in US who are trying to disenfanchise the Muslim minority. Shame on you.

I am certain that if most of the stupid people behind the anti-Sharia legislation were asked just what "Sharia Law" is, they would either have no clue or start spouting some sort of canned rhetoric they heard from their evangelical pastor or Rush Limbaugh.

Should we ban Halacha as well?

How about we just ban people from the discussion who don't give any evidence of a single thought in their head other than to call anti-sharia people stupid?

I don't have an evangelical pastor and I don't consult Rush Limbaugh on Sharia law so I don't have any canned rhetoric from either.

But I do have plenty of clues. Google is your friend. Read up. When it speaks of infidels and what to do with them, they're talking about you.

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