By Michelle Nichols, Reuters
NEW YORK, March 2 (Reuters) – As some 20 U.S. states consider legislation that would ban Islamic sharia law, a grassroots group is fighting back with a national campaign to defend religious freedom and dispel misconceptions about how Muslims in America observe their faith.

The Islamic Circle of North America said Islamophobia had worsened after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda islamists, perpetuated by a fear that U.S. Muslims practice strict sharia like countries such as Saudi Arabia.
“Sharia is being used as a facade for Islamophobia,” said Islamic Circle spokesman Naeem Baig. “This discussion must start on sharia so people get to know what we Muslims believe.”
The group plans to hold sharia education conferences and town halls in 25 U.S. cities this year. Its campaign, “Defending Religious Freedom, Understanding Sharia,” also includes a national hotline to answer questions, an advertising campaign and 20 seminars on colleges campuses.
Based on the Koran, sharia covers all aspects of Muslim life from religious obligations to financial dealings. It is loosely described as Islamic law, although the Islamic Circle said it does not define it as law. Instead, it says it is more personal.
“Any Muslim, just by saying ‘I am a Muslim,’ is practicing sharia,” Baig said. “Sharia is much more religious in nature, spiritual in nature, our own observing of Islam personally. If I pray five times a day I am observing sharia.”
The year-long campaign comes in response to a growing number of U.S. states considering a ban on courts recognizing sharia, through legislation either specifically naming sharia or international law generally, which would include sharia.
Most recently, a federal appeals court upheld an injunction against an Oklahoma initiative, saying that a ban on courts considering sharia likely discriminates against religion. The Oklahoma amendment was approved by 70 percent of voters in 2010.
“Islamophobia is a term made up by those accusers to divert attention away from their efforts to impose sharia law upon Americans,” said Oklahoma State Senator Anthony Sykes, one of the initiative’s sponsors, in response to the Islamic Circle’s accusation that such legislation was Islamophobic.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations says more than 20 states are mulling considering bans on the court use of sharia or international law.
In addition, it said legislation has passed in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee, a measure was defeated in Virginia and bills expired in Utah, Wyoming, Arkansas and Maine.
“This is a religious freedom issue, this is an American tradition, this is an American constitutional issue and Muslims are asking for the same thing that other religious groups are enjoying,” said Zahid Bukhari, president of the Islamic Circle.
Advocates for legislation banning sharia in U.S. courts often point to a 2009 New Jersey court ruling which denied a Muslim woman a restraining order against her husband whom she accused of beating and raping her. The judge acknowledged a clash between the man’s religious beliefs — that he could have sex with his wife whenever he wanted — and U.S. criminal law.
An appeals court overturned the decision in 2010, stating: “The judge determined to except defendant from the operation of the State’s statutes as the result of his religious beliefs. In doing so, the judge was mistaken.”
Lawyer David Yerushalmi, a leader of the American Freedom Law Center, helped craft draft model legislation prohibiting the application of foreign law in U.S. courts that was passed in Tennessee, Louisiana and Arizona.
Yerushalmi said the legislation does not “ban sharia,” but “if the sharia shoe fits, so be it.” He said the majority of Americans understood sharia.
“When you turn on your TV and all you see is one beheading after another and one flogging after another in the name of sharia in all of those Muslim countries which seem to have a pretty good idea what sharia is, all of the obfuscation and sophistry in the world just melts away,” he said.
According to a August 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, almost a third of Americans believe Muslims are trying to establish sharia as U.S. law. The survey also found 86 percent of Americans know little or nothing about the beliefs and practices of Muslims.
In some countries a rigid application of sharia has drawn headlines for punishments including the amputation of hands on thieves and death for adulterers and limits on women’s rights that ban them from driving and require that they have a male relative’s permission to work or leave the country.
But the Islamic Circle of North America, founded in 1968, said sharia in the United States tended to be based on a moderate interpretation and that sharia required Muslims to obey laws of the country where they live.
“Being a good Muslim means being a good citizen of that country,” said Bukhari.
Despite the discord over state bids to prohibit sharia or foreign law, the mood toward U.S. Muslims appears warmer.
Only a quarter of U.S. mosque leaders believed last year that Americans were hostile to Islam, compared to 54 percent in 2000, found a poll released on Wednesday by multifaith coalition the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch)
Article Courtesy: Reuters

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Islamic Circle of North America
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