How freaking out about “Shari’a courts” is racist and myopic because the problem is a lot bigger than the Scary Brown People
So certain segments of the media have a hard-on for horrific stories about Muslim communities, especially stories of honor killings. Almost exclusively stories of honor killings. The tension between these communities and the Western society that they live in is well documented. Islamophobia in the West is well documented. However, the fear-mongering over Muslim communities in the United States and elsewhere also turn up the concept of “Shari’a Courts” which, as Fox News and Glenn Beck would have you believe, is a Muslim conspiracy to replace our revered Constitution with some Daesh version of Shari’a Law.
Now, I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert in Islam, or in the motivations of every single one of the 1.5 billion plus Muslims around the world, or the political makeup or aspirations of believers. But I do know that too many Westerners harbor an unhealthy amount of fear towards Muslim communities, for a variety of reasons. I also know that this fear is fed by too many unfounded sources, hypocritical and asymmetrical applications of morals, and a misunderstanding of how people in religious and minority communities think and act. So I am going to take the time to break down these fears and misconceptions in order to place the issue in its context, with the hope that not only will some fears be allayed, other fears will actually be placed in the “reasonable” and “actionable” category.
Because, oddly enough, I am not advocating that misogynistic and/or abusive practices continue on any continent or in even the most discriminated communities simply on the basis of religion or minority class.
Let’s start with a broad category of minority communities. Historically, minority communities (be it religious, ethnic/racial, social, or economic) have made a point to live, eat, and work separately from the majority community. This is a natural tendency in humans and other social animals—we prefer to congregate around things and people we know. This is why you see refugee and immigrant communities (from the Irish of the 19th century to Ethiopians of the 21st) cropping up in the same cities and neighborhoods. When you are a new person to a city or country it is much easier to adjust when you are among people who can speak your language and can cook like your mom.
For minorities, this type of homogeneous congregation is also largely due to the legal and social discrimination faced by these minorities in the majority community. Minorities suffer a disproportionate amount of depression and anxiety when they are forced to “assimilate” to majority culture. We see this from black kids in majority white schools to Native kids torn away from their families to LGBTQ+ kids who are forced into gay conversion therapy to our standard “farm boy transplanted into the big city” motif in popular culture. As much as people like to scream at others to assimilate, they are essentially telling those others to strip their identity because said identity is “not good”—something that almost guarantees debilitating mental health issues and compounded trauma.
Considering all of this, it makes sense that these minority communities are distrustful of the majority. Not only do these minority communities distrust the majority community—the schools, businesses, and people who both passively and actively treat them as less than—they distrust the entire majority system they live under. This includes, especially, the judicial and law enforcement system. This is what you are seeing when black communities rarely call the police when a crime happens on their doorstep. This is what you are seeing when two disputing Jewish Orthodox men are more likely to attempt to solve the dispute with their rabbi. This is what you are seeing with the Josh Duggar case, when the family relied on their church to punish their son instead of the police. Communities with “fringe” views or simply a history of discrimination of their identities will obviously prefer to settle disputes within their own communities. Even more likely, calling the police or getting the courts involved simply escalates the issue.
Humans are predictable. You see this in-group policing everywhere, especially in small towns and minority communities that have a historic distrust of formal/secular law enforcement and judicial systems.
Muslim communities in the United States are minority communities, often based in areas where previous Muslim immigrants or refugees congregated. Of course they have community-based policing, they are not stupid. They see how law enforcement treats them, how if any of their group is involved in criminal or terrorist activity and it’s reported the entire community will have the FBI invading their privacy on suspicion of terrorism.
These “Shari’a courts” that people are freaking out about are the same kind of community conflict resolution that your local church provides. For Muslim communities, it is the primary step towards addressing disputes without invoking the fraught relationship between their community and formal law enforcement. This is not to say that community policing—especially religious community policing—is good. It’s not, and I’ll tell you why.
I mentioned the Josh Duggar case. That absolutely was not an isolated incident in the United States Christian community. You also have Warren Jeffs’ tightly controlled and privately policed FLDS compounds where women, men, and children are regularly abused and brainwashed. You have countless women from the “Quiverfull” communities talking about constant emotional and physical abuse in their homes and churches. Unfortunately, there are not enough statistics to cover how much sexual assault cases occur in minority and religious communities because they are often covered up to “save face”, including conservative religious communities like the Evangelical community and the Catholic Church. Other incidents, such as the punishment for parents talking about lack of appropriate schooling in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, also highlight how homogeneous minority policing can be exceedingly problematic.
Again, the reluctance to call the police when a crime occurs—especially gendered crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence—or even taking civil disputes to secular courts is to be expected in conservative religious communities worldwide. Not only are such crimes dealt with internally as to not escalate an already unstable situation, they are downplayed due to vicious misogyny and other conservatism constructed and upheld by both the minority AND majority culture.
Some of the core causes–and problems–of in-group policing include xenophobia and discrimination by those in power. Patriarchal tendencies of conservative communities encourage the silencing of horrific crimes in order to keep law enforcement from damaging community cohesiveness. Violent racism and discrimination by the majority encourage people from minority communities to keep their sanity by staying within the confines of their own communities.
So, sure, the heads of these minority communities may have the motivation to keep the status quo, but the majority population actively incentivize this behavior as well.
When a person fears (with no evidence) the attempted takeover by what is essentially internal Muslim community human resources, I have to be highly skeptical when they do not—at the same time—identify the very real conservative Christian government takeover across the United States. You want to know what religious government takeover looks like? It looks like hundreds of pieces of legislation restricting reproductive rights, condoning violence against LGBTQ+ citizens, and slashing science and whitewashing history from schoolbooks.
Yes, misogynistic and problematic policing occurs in the Muslim community as well, but they do not have nearly the same amount of political and social influence over this country as a whole like Christian communities do.
You can be both concerned about abuse in religious communities and the racism/xenophobia that disproportionately targets minority communities to force reform and assimilation. There are already Muslim activists who are attempting reform of their religion to protect minorities, women, and other discriminated groups, why would you think you have a better perspective on how to “do it right”? If you are in the majority culture, perhaps it would be more effective to find the solutions to how you can make yourcommunity safer, more accepting of others, and more cooperative with different communities.
Assimilation has never been the solution. Especially when you’re advocating assimilation into a majority culture that is actually pretty crappy.