David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin recently served with the US Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet his role was mostly in intelligence gathering as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence at the Pentagon. As a loyal patriot in the military, Boykin was and continues to be laser-focused on our nation’s enemies.

No one would deny that transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and its affiliates or Taliban-related fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan (tribal-based with local aims) are sworn enemies of the US. What I would like to highlight here is Boykin’s unshakeable certainty that “Islam” equals Sharia law, and Sharia law equals a system inherently bent on world domination. In a recent article, posing as an expert on all things Islamic, he proclaims,

Sharia law is the foundation of Islamic theocracy and totalitarianism. The establishment of global Sharia law is the goal of the adherents to authoritative Islam. The Koran is unequivocal in its directive to Muslims to establish a global Islamic state, or Caliphate, over which the Islamic messiah, or Mahdi, will rule with Sharia as the only law of the land. That is the intent of many influential Islamic elements in America.

Here I only test one of his claims: that Sharia as blueprint for global hegemony is the view of “many influential elements in America.” God willing, I will follow up with three more blogs touching on other aspects of this most misunderstood aspect of the Islamic faith – Sharia law.

But first, just a little background into the wider (and influential) movement to which Boykin relates. In today’s social science parlance, I speak here of “the anti-Sharia discourse.” Indeed, Boykin is the lead author of a book on this topic, Shariah: The Threat To America: An Exercise In Competitive Analysis (2010). It is published by a think-tank led by Frank Gaffney, who was a top security adviser for President Reagan. The book’s description on Amazon.com reads: “This study is the result of months of analysis, discussion and drafting by a group of top security policy experts concerned with the preeminent totalitarian threat of our time: the legal-political-military doctrine known within Islam as ‘shariah.’”

Many other voices from several quarters have joined in this chorus. I’ll only mention one here, Steven Emerson and his Washington-based SAE Productions and its nonprofit wing, the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation. And it seems that Emerson’s “nonprofit” pitch that America stands on the brink of impending doom at the hand of Islamic radicals is in fact rather profitable. In 2008 alone he collected more than $3.3 million. Investigative journalist Bob Smietana got interested in this one arm of “a multimillion-dollar industry of self-proclaimed experts who spread hate toward Muslims in books and movies, on websites and through speaking appearances” by virtue of covering a trial in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee.

Opponents of the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, managed to monopolize six days of court hearings with lectures on how Islam is not a true religion but rather a conspiracy to take over America and squash its cherished freedom. Unsurprisingly, one of the witnesses was Frank Gaffney whose think-tank had determined that one of the board members of the new mosque had been a member of Hamas (an allegation denied by the member and his board). Gaffney reiterated what other self-proclaimed experts in Sharia law had said, namely that Islam and Sharia were inseparable and therefore posed a vital threat to US security.

            Fortunately, a coalition of Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims stood up to defend the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. One of those prominent voices was that of Florida mega-church pastor Joel Hunter, who said that it was ludicrous for the opponents of the mosque to base their opposition on the claim that Islam was not a religion but a political system with a built-in legal code at war with American democracy. He added that Muslims are like other past minorities that faced tough challenges to be accepted in America. For that reason, he was not going to relent: “Islam is facing that now and we will not rest until they have equal rights with other religions.”

            The latest news is that the judge was ready to throw out the opponents’ challenge to the green light for the building permit issued by the Regional Planning Commission, but they did manage to have another hearing scheduled for April 13. Regardless of the outcome, however, the fact that the opposition has gained so much traction is a testimony to the power and magnetism of the anti-Sharia discourse.

            Yet that line of thinking is totally divorced from the worldview of the vast majority of American Muslims. Not only did all the major Muslim organizations in this country immediately condemn the attacks of 2001; they fervently and unequivocally support the ethical ideals of democracy and human rights, including religious freedom. The imam of the Manhattan mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has been at the center of the “Park51” controversy (their new building a couple of blocks away from “Ground Zero”), is a veteran of interfaith dialog. Imam Abdul Rauf explained what he has learned as an American Muslim in his book, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. As a young man he sailed into New York Harbor in December 1965, eying the Statue of Liberty. “Little did I realize then,” he mused, “that I was to discover the riches of my faith tradition in this land. Like many immigrants from Muslim lands, I discovered my Islam in America.”

            One of his discoveries was that with its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution the United States of America is a better “Muslim” country than most so-called “Muslim countries.” I cannot here go into all the details, but let’s start with this summary:

Muslim legal scholars have defined five areas of life that Islamic law must protect and further. These are life, mind (that is, mental well-being or sanity), religion, property (or wealth), and family (or lineage and progeny). Any system of rule that upholds, protects, and furthers these rights is therefore legally “Islamic,” or Shariah compliant, in its substance. Because these rights are God-given, they are inalienable and cannot be deprived of any man or woman without depriving them of their essential humanity.

            Another part of his argument centers around the two central commandments of love for God and love of neighbor. The three Abrahamic faiths, and Islam’s religious law (the Sharia) make this distinction. Their followers are to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. “Our Christian friends,” he writes, “call this the ‘vertical dimension’ of religious practice.” The second part is more sociological, having to do with the “horizontal dimension” of our faith – how we relate to those around us. The first dimension in Islamic law is called the ‘ibadat, the ritual aspect of the faith (the five pillars of Islam, and the like). The second dimension is the mu’amalat, literally the mutual relationships of people in society, which covers family law, contractual or commercial law, and penal or criminal law. That second branch, as opposed to the fixed nature of the first, is extremely flexible. As long as those objectives of Sharia are met (as stated in the block quotation above), they are constantly in need of revision and reformulation, so as to respond to the changing needs of society over time.

More detail will come in subsequent blogs. Here I only emphasize that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf sits squarely in the center of mainstream American Islam. In an evangelical-Muslim dialog to which Rick Love and I contributed, which was organized by Georgetown University last year, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was giving out free copies of his book. Muslims disagree on many details of theology, law and politics – as do Jews and Christians among themselves. But one thing is for sure: the conspiracy theories of Jerry Boykin and Steven Emerson have nothing to do with the view of Sharia held by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim American community.

              Since this is my first blog, you must know a bit about me. Practically all of my schooling was in France, where my father founded an inter-church youth organization for the purpose of re-introducing French youths to the teachings of Jesus. I started college in the United States with a French accent and a European mindset. Then after college I trained as a pastor at a seminary, but felt God was calling me to serve in Algeria. There I served as assistant pastor for nine years, first in the only English-speaking Protestant Church (Anglican) and then in the only French-speaking one (a mix of French Reformed and Methodist). The next stage was teaching, first in an English-language elementary school in Ismailiyya, Egypt; then at the Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank, teaching Palestinians in Arabic.

            Then, starting in 1997, there was this “second career” in academia . . . a PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary, postdoctoral research in Islamic Studies at Yale, teaching part-time at the University of Pennsylvania, and now at St. Joseph’s University (also in Philadelphia), a Catholic school. Each semester for the last couple of years, I’ve been teaching two classes each term, Introduction to Islam and Comparative Religion.

            I am fascinated by the phenomenon of religion, how it developed over the millennia in various parts of the world; how religiosity has mushroomed globally since the 1980s especially; and how followers of the two largest “religions” – Muslims and Christians – can dig into the treasures of their traditions and invest those resources to build a more peaceful and righteous world. This series of blogs is my attempt to pull out from my academic publications (and lectures) bits and pieces that I think will widen your perspective and inspire you to take part in this movement – whether you are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or purely “secular.”

            I put “religion” in quotation marks, only because scholars cannot agree on how to define it. One group thinks there is something special that makes certain beliefs and practices “religious”: its reference to supernatural beings; or how people separate the “sacred” from the “profane”; or the belief in a transcendent power, whether personal or impersonal.

            Another group retorts that there is no one “essence” (no one “thing”) to “religion,” but that one should look at how religion functions in society: how certain beliefs and rituals bind people together, how collective myths shape a particular culture, and the like.

            Finally, another group says, “no, you just describe people’s beliefs, their rituals and practices, using the tools of sociology and anthropology (what is generally called the ‘phenomenology of religion’), and you note what different systems have in common.” That’s basically a middle path between the first and second options, and you can call it the “family resemblance” approach.

            But, you say, “Who cares about this scholarly stuff? It’s just making something simple very confusing!” Perhaps, but it’s our oversimplifications that often create conflict. Consider this: the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published an article in 1993 entitled, “The Clash of Civilizations.” He had long been an advisor to the State Department under several administrations and on the heels of the Soviet Union’s demise and the Gulf War his idea caught the imagination of many American intellectuals and politicians. Basically, he taught that from now on, the great conflicts of our world will take place between “civilizations.” The “West” will face off with “Islam” and “Confucianism” (i.e., China) in the first place, but other blocks will join in the fray, including the Hindu, Japanese, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African blocks.

            The implication – spelled out in particular by American “Neo-Conservatives” who were pushing President Bush to invade Iraq long before he did – was that this clash is inevitable and that we had better arm ourselves to the teeth and get ready for it. Not exactly a call to peaceful conflict resolution. The late Palestinian-American English professor at Columbia University, Edward Said, wrote in response that first of all there is no such thing as “the West” (which country are you talking about? Which ethnicity or political current?) or “Islam” (do you mean the Sunni majority. . . what about the Sufis, the Shia, the Ahmadis, the Salafis, etc.?). And second, that this oversimplified, essentialized view (the “West” is the “West” by virtue of a common essence) grossly distorts reality and fans the flame of conflict like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

            Edward Said notes that right after the unspeakable horrors of World War II, nations assembled to create a platform of understanding so as to (or try to) insure that this would never happen again. Hence the United Nations, the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, and the spate of international covenants and agreements that are now seen as “international law.” Said calls this the “harmony” paradigm. A better world is possible, so let’s work together to make it happen. The other paradigm was the Cold War. Two blocks facing each other, with enough fire power to blow up the planet a few hundred times over.

            All this to say: let’s take a closer look at some of the stereotypes bandied about in the media (like “Islam is violent,” or “religious people are bigoted,” etc.). Maybe reality is more complex and, actually, much more interesting. I may even get you to see that academic disciplines like sociology, history, theology and religious studies have some useful tools to work with!

23 August 2011


Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.