Okay, just as a warning, this post is going to discuss the current range of hopefuls for the Republican nominee for President. But firstly, let me just say that I’m going to try very hard to keep this blog apolitical this year. That’s not to say it’s going to be unbiased – I doubt very much that any regular visitors to this site would hesitate over whom I’m supporting for President – but discussing American politics is not the purpose of this blog. However, I’m also not going to actively avoid discussing topics relevant to Islamic history and the modern, Western conception of Islam because discussing those topics would require discussing people who are connected to this election in some way. I admit, it’s a problematic road to walk, and I warmly invite my readers to help me correct my course – if you think I’m harping on too much about American politics, please let me know. I’m particularly sensitive to the fact that many of the regular readers/commenters/contributors to this blog are not American, and I don’t want you to feel ignored or uninvolved in the discussion from now until November.
Okay, so that rambling apology out of the way . . . I want to talk about the current discussions about sharia and Islamic law that keep cropping up in the Republican debates. Obviously this is a topic I have talked about before, so I’m going to try to keep from repeating myself, but I think the current discussion invites further commentary.
As many of you are probably aware, none of the current contenders for the Republican nomination have a great history for supporting or even apparently understanding modern Muslim practice. But the two who stand out in particular are Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Santorum I’ve talked about before, so I’m not going to address him directly.
As for Speaker Gingrich, his opinion of Islam began to surface last year, when he commented that he considered sharia to be a moral threat to the US. He recently reaffirmed this position by stressing that he would only support a Muslim candidate for President if he/she didn’t have “any king of belief in sharia“.
Firstly, these comments demonstrate all of the problems I’ve pointed out in modern discussion of sharia and Islamic law in previous posts – sharia is not the same thing as Islamic law, sharia is an abstract concept, not a codified principle; although most, if not all Muslims believe in sharia, only a tiny percentage would ever see an advantage in trying to force others to conform to Islamic law, and so the whole concept of ‘creeping sharia‘ is completely misguided. Personally, I find the Speaker’s apparently misguided conception of Islamic law and Muslim practice deeply problematic, as it suggests a critical lack of information or interest in a religious community which makes up a sizable portion of the US population, and which constitutes a major population worldwide – but again, that’s just me.
However, I think it’s important to point out that the position on Islamic practice promoted by both Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum also demonstrates a tremendous level of hypocrisy when it comes to the larger question of the role of religious practice in public life, in particular for the use of religious law in American courtrooms. While both criticize Islamic practice in the public sphere, they both support what they consider to be Christian practice in public life – both support ‘traditional’ marriage, both claim a ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ defines American and both claim that President Obama is attempting to ‘secularize’ the US.
Their position on sharia and its claimed threat to America strikes me as Islamophobic, but taken in combination with their position on Christian practice, it also strikes me as simply deeply ill-informed. The problem with many modern approaches to religion in the public sphere is that they tend to come, predominately if not exclusively, from a position of personal experience and anecdotal evidence (and this accusation I lay fairly firmly against both liberals and conservatives – many self-professed atheist and agnostic leaders demonstrate an equally ill-informed conception of what religion is). What we need, when it comes to issues of public practice or religious law, however, is actual expertise. Obviously, this kind of expertise is far more difficult to get for religion that for, say, space policy, as it’s far harder to find someone that even a majority of participants in a given religious tradition will recognize as an authority. But it’s certainly not impossible, and at the moment, it doesn’t seem like we’re even trying.
Instead, for both their policy on Islam and their policy on Christianity, both Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum seem to be speaking from just what they think constitutes those communities and their laws and rites. This is a terrible basis for public policy – and for anything except religion, the public would all recognize this (consider, for example, how much questioning any candidate gets on their relevant experience to set policy regarding economics or foreign policy, fields where we recognize that the candidate’s own opinions on those subjects would hardly ever be sufficient to qualify them to speak with expertise). It’s not that we shouldn’t be alarmed when public figures spout ridiculous misguided visions of Islam, but to focus on this fact in isolation is insufficient – we need to consider how they address religion more general, and try to correct for that wider range of assumptions.
 As a historian, I strongly question the concept of ‘traditional’ marriage as signifying a life-long, monogamous relationship between a man and woman that is sanctioned by the state – although you might be able to argue that this model was the preferred form of marriage in Western countries, even this claim is easy to contradict when compared to, for example, the marriage practices of royals and aristocracies throughout Europe, who routinely took lovers, divorced partners and remarried, and married despite state and even religious sanctions to stop them, all in public without any clear implication that their actions contradicted some established ‘tradition’ of marriage.
 The concept of ‘Judeo-Christian’ is massively problematic from a theological standpoint – there is very little you can safely claim all existing forms of Christianity and Judaism hold in common. But this is a topic for another post.