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Welcome to the Shari'ah Conspiracy Theory Industry

How the American right demonizes Islam for political gain.

At February’s Conservative Political Action Conference, a student from the group Youth for Western Civilization at Liberty University asked members of a panel titled “The Shari'ah Challenge to the West”: “Are we going to see a rise of Islamic Europe, and America just sits there on its own... are we actually going to win?” Another audience member asked, “what recourse does America have as a country... to deal with that problem with a completely won Islamist population? What recourse do we have at home and abroad?”

That these questions were treated as legitimate lines of inquiry at a conference that serves as a dog and pony show for Republican presidential candidates demonstrates the success of a cottage industry of anti-Muslim fearmongers (politicians, religious groups, ministers, self-styled national security experts, former government officials, retired military officers, pundits, and writers) who have cultivated a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that totalitarian Islamic radicals are bent on infiltrating America, displacing the Constitution, and subverting Western-style democracy in the U.S. and around the globe.

As Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, opens his hearings into “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response” this week, these conspiracy theories will take center stage in the halls of the United States Congress in the latest and most blatant McCarthy-esque twist in the rising level of Islamophobia in the United States. Anti-Muslim diatribe and activity have reached what Marshall Breger, a law professor at Catholic University, an Orthodox Jew and a Republican, has described as a “season of singular national distemper where, for reasons best understood by social psychiatrists, the American people have entered into what can only be described as ‘open season’ on Islam.”

The conspiracy theorists succeed by using self-styled, unqualified “experts” to stoke fears of secret plots of Muslims to take over America and replace its Constitution with shari'ah law. That they even point to shari'ah, says Lena Salaymeh, a Harvard-trained lawyer now working on her doctorate in Islamic legal history at Berkeley, is evidence of their ignorance about Islamic law, politics, and culture.

“There’s a cottage industry in the West of people who pretend to be experts on Islam, who are getting a lot of time in the media,” Salaymeh points out. “It wouldn’t pass in any other context that you would get people who really know nothing turning into experts. But it happens in this context because they’re saying what people want to hear.”

If one untangles what that cottage industry is saying, one can detect five claims of the shari'ah conspiracy theory: that the goal of Islam is totalitarianism; that the mastermind of bringing this totalitarianism to the world is the Muslim Brotherhood, the grandfather of all Islamic groups from Hamas to the Islamic Society of North America; that these organizations within the United States are traitors in league with the American left and are bent on acts of sedition against America; that the majority of mosques in the United States are run by imams who promote such sedition; and that through this fifth column, shari'ah law has already infiltrated the United States and could result in a complete takeover if not stopped.

What Shari'ah Really Is

In an interview with the Center for American Progress, Intisar Rabb, a member of the law faculty at Boston College Law School, explains that: “Shari'ah is the ideal law of God according to Islam... Shari'ah has tremendous diversity, as jurists and learned scholars figure out and articulate what that law is...”

In pre-colonial times, Salaymeh added, jurists—legal thinkers—would determine fiqh, the understanding of what divine law is based on their interpretation of religious texts. It’s important to note, however, that because human interpretations of divine revelation vary, and because there’s no central Islamic authority, there is no fixed legal definition of shari'ah.

In post-colonial times in the Middle East and North Africa, as a means of “coalesc[ing] popular support against imperialism,” Salaymeh explains, some activists promoted “Islamic unity,” in which use of “Islamic law” became a popular rhetoric. Rabb, too, noted, “Historically, Shari'ah served as a means for political dissent against arbitrary rule.”