The conference held at the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, on Saturday, March 31, was appropriately named as "Demystifying Shari'ah" - a word not many were familiar with until a few years ago, a concept so charged today that it fiercely divides communities and send chills down spines.
The aim of the conference was to educate the audience in a spirit similar to what President John F. Kennedy had famously said, "…a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."
The full-day long program ended with dinner as per tradition of the Islamic Center of New England – some of my friends find the spicy food served at the ICNE reason enough to attend any event there, so I was hoping that combined with the topic's popularity (or notoriety?) would draw a big crowd. I am thankful to those who came, though I did not see many unfamiliar faces and felt an opportunity for sharing concerns and seeking answers seemed lost. I assumed many were either held up by prior commitments or by the inability to overcome their fears – or perhaps, simply, the advertising efforts needed more work!
The speakers included Naeem Baig (executive director of the Islamic Circle of North America's Council for Social Justice – ICNA CSJ), Professor Jason Donnelly (Theology Department, Boston College), Imam Khalid Griggs (chairman of the ICNA Council for Social Justice), Malika Rushdan (director of ICNA Relief, MA) and Sheikh Abdool Rahman (chairman ICNA Shariah Council). All speakers imparted thought-provoking analyses using current and historical perspectives.
To recount briefly, Naeem Baig gave details about the campaign, and referred the audience to their website and the 24-hour hotline for Shari'ah-related questions, 1-855-SHARIAH.
Imam Griggs talked about the wave of Islamophobia versus the reality of American Muslims as a largely law-abiding, self-policing group.
Malika Rushdon described the achievements of her Boston charity wing, ICNA Relief.
Professor Donnelly talked, among other things, about religious freedom with reference to religious pluralism as tolerance, inclusion and participation ("Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentions History of a Founding Ideal," by William Hutchinson).
Sheikh Abdool Rahman spoke at length about the true meaning of the misunderstood term, Shari'ah (literally, "path"), explaining that when a Muslim prays, gives charity, helps his neighbor, speaks the truth and saves a life, he is being a good follower of Shari'ah.
He enlightened the audience that of the 6,236 verses in the Quran, only 15 deal directly with punishment, hence reducing the penal aspect of Shari'ah to 0.25 percent of the whole faith. He also explained that in the United States, Shari'ah law governs Muslim marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial and will in the form of a contract law, quite similar to the Jewish Halacha law and Christian Canon law. The speakers made it a point to clarify that Shari'ah law is subservient to the U.S. judicial system as per the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, so there is no question of it "taking over" or replacing the existing judicial system, nor is that the desire of American Muslims contrary to what certain interests groups project.
I recalled my own initial bewilderment when well-meaning non-Muslim friends had shared their fears about the Muslim plan to "bring Shari'ah to the United States." Like other Muslims, I didn't even know such a plan was in motion! I have since learned through the media that "some" Muslims "somewhere" are working to bring "dangerous Shari'ah" to the Land of the Free, but no one has been able to point out who exactly is behind that, and where it is being executed – no pun intended!
The "Demystifying Shari'ah" conference is a good and timely effort as part of a series of country-wide seminars, lectures etc. as the organizers aim to explain the true meaning of Shari'ah to the general public, Muslims included, and dispel unfounded fears. It is also much needed, judging by the public alarm and its projection by some as a "mortal threat" to American values. I hope the campaign will help those who believe in obtaining credible information before establishing a position in favor or against a cause.
Psychologist Wayne Dyer so rightly said, "The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don't know anything about," and George Bernard Shaw warned us to "Beware of false knowledge," for "it is more dangerous than ignorance."
So, are we ready to arm ourselves with correct information and contribute to the demise of hateful agendas preying on our fears, in the larger interest of the country yet?