|Some Islamic communities in Britain are organizing for Sharia-controlled zones with billboards and posters like this one.|
Professor David Forte, an expert in Islamic Law and an adviser to President George W. Bush on Islamic issues, in a talk this week in Rome to the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty highlighted a disturbing resurgence of radical Islam across the Middle East, and to a lesser extent, in parts of Asia and West Africa. The characteristic of this radicalism, most evident in the post-Arab spring Egypt, is an ideological drive to make Islamic law—Sharia—the basis of the legal system of predominantly Muslim nations.
This issue may seem remote to U.S. citizens and voters. Not so. America must coexist and cooperate with a billion Muslims across the globe, and the question of how these populations understand the relationship between Church and State will continue to dominate our foreign and military policy. Indeed, there is a growing domestic challenge from proponents of Sharia law in the United States and western Europe, where Muslim populations have surged over the past decades. Will western, or radical Islamic views, serve as the basis for our system of law and jurisprudence?
Forte told the ZENIT news service that the reason for the trend toward Sharia law in the Muslim world appears to be the merging of the ulama tradition with the modern nation state. Under the imperial regimes of Islam, the dangers were always limited by customs and other forces within the empire. “The rulers would limit the Sharia, and in turn be limited by the Sharia—it was a very mixed and complex political structure,” explained Forte, who lectures in law at Cleveland State University. “But with the coming of the nation state and the rise of the Islamicists in the 20th century, they wanted to make the Sharia superior, but also to tie it to the monopoly of force of the positivistic modern state.”
“The two of those together are very worrisome,” Forte said.
So what does this mean when it comes to possible democratic reforms among Muslim-majority states—a hope enkindled by the Arab Spring? Can these Muslim states ever be truly democratic? “The short answer is we don’t know,” said Forte, pointing out the issue boils down to both the form and substance democracy could take.
“The forms of election only matter if they’re based upon that rock-solid vision of what the human person is,” he explained. “So from what we see of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, they’re very much in favor of various forms of democracy, but they want the forms to point to a compulsory Sharia law on other people. So I’m not sure the substance of democracy is there.”
As to whether the Arab Spring will in general be a positive chapter in the history of the Middle East, Forte believes it depends on whether the Arab world becomes self-educated as a result. “If their educational establishment opens up more, so that people read more, then they can become more civilized, in which case they may return to the idea of the Sharia as having a limited part in society, not a total part, and apply it perhaps to worship, or inheritance,” he said.
The mixed state, he added, “may derive from the fact that the people don’t believe the Sharia suits their sense of individuality and dignity from their democratic reforms. That’s the hope, but we don’t know whether that will actually work out.”
Sharia is also not necessarily an irreformable legal system as it has shown historical precedent for change— a reality that could represent a sign of hope, worthy of further study. “The content of the Sharia is, if you look at it in classical terms, liberal and reformist in its initial era and then as it became solidified, archaic in some ways,” he said.
Sharia law has traditionally had three permanently inferior classes—women, slaves and unbelievers—and continues to practice archaic elements of the law such as physically chastising wives and disfiguring people for theft.