Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom. He has lectured worldwide and is the author or editor of 20 books on religion and politics, including Their Blood Cries Out and Islam at the Crossroads. His latest edited book is Radical Islam's Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari'a Law (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).
FP: Paul Marshall, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Marshall: Thank you for having me back Jamie
FP: First, tell us: what is Sharia?
Marshall: Sharia is Islamic law but the term law may be misleading. At one level, it is better compared to, say, a traditional Jewish understanding of biblical and rabbinic law than with a Western legal code. It certainly covers crime and judicial procedure, but it also provides guidelines for a range of other activities as well, from marriage and economics to spiritual and moral issues like prayer, pilgrimage, and ritual cleansing.
FP. In the book and in its title, you refer to something called “extreme Sharia.” Tell us the difference between Sharia and extreme Sharia.
Marshall: I’ve spent a good chunk of the last three years in many parts of the Muslim world interviewing people about Sharia. One thing I quickly learned was that Muslims mean very different things when they use the term. Sharia's root meaning is "the way" or "path to the water" and to most Muslims it implies doing God's will, not necessarily imitating the Taliban. In Indonesia, polls show 67 percent support for "Sharia" but only 7 percent objecting to a woman head of state. There it seems to means something like the American polling term "moral values." Polling in Iraq shows a similar pattern: 80% support for Sharia combined with 80% support for equality of men and women.
To many Muslims, criticism of Sharia as such sounds strange because, much as they might disagree with stoning adulterous women or cutting off the hands of thieves, the word implies “justice” or “goodness.” So I use the phrase ‘extreme Sharia’ to describe the laws implemented by the Saudis, Iran and others throughout the world.
FP. Tell us the importance of Sharia in the context of the world situation today.
Marshall: The state enforced imposition of retrograde Sharia law is central to the project of Islamist terrorists worldwide, whether in Iraq, Nigeria, Tajikistan or Indonesia. Their explicit, continually reiterated, program is, in brief, to restore a politically unified worldwide Muslim community, the ummah, ruled by a single ruler, a Caliph, governed by the most reactionary version of Islamic law, Sharia, and organized to wage jihad on the rest of the world. We are in a battle with what is most accurately called the Caliphate movement.
A key element of their program and appeal is the replacement of democracy, legislatures and “man-made law” with what they regard as the immutable divine law declared by God to Mohammed. As MEMRI has recorded, bin Laden’s December 16, 2004 “Statement to the Saudi Rulers” said the regime must be overthrown for “ruling by laws other than those which Allah has revealed” and implementing “man-made laws.” His December 27 “Letter to the Iraqi People” told them not to participate in the January 30 election since Muslims are allowed only to elect a leader for whom “Islam is the only source of the rulings and laws.” Palestinian Authority elections are likewise forbidden since “the constitution of the land is a Jahili made by man” (he suggested another little noticed reason for boycotting the Palestinian elections, by the way, claiming erroneously that the candidate Mahmoud Abbas is a Bahai.) He also condemned voting in Afghanistan since the Karzai government is "apostate." Iraq's terrorist Ansar al-Sunnah Army has warned Iraqis not to vote because "Democracy is a Greek word meaning the rule of the people. This concept is apostasy."
Extreme Sharia is central for all Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Hizbut al-Tahrir, whether or not they are terrorists. Some groups, like Hamas, will campaign in elections if they think they can win. However, in all cases it is not only destructive of human rights, but is also a stark threat to democracy, since its adherents want to replace democracy with their version of divine law. Therefore it is intrinsically inimical to U.S. national interests. It is also spreading. If we want to understand and combat radical Islam, we must understand Sharia, especially the radicals’ version.
Despite this outpouring, American policymakers still show remarkably little interest in the jihadis’ ideology and sometimes seem content to regard it as mere fanatic reaction to U.S. policies, especially in the Middle East. It is as if, in the cold war, we were content simply to fight against communism without bothering to learn anything of Marxism.
FP: Tell us where Sharia and extreme Sharia have been implemented and what the results have been.
Marshall: It has been implemented in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and areas of Malaysia and Indonesia. Western attention has focused largely on the draconian punishments of amputations and stoning, but the effects and dangers are far wider. Criminal law, the judicial system, rules of evidence, the role of women, educational systems, the media, religious freedom, and all other human rights are forced into the purported model of seventh-century Arabia. While there are variations from country to country, there is a remarkable consistency to the radicals’ laws and demands, whether in the Middle East, East or West Africa, central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and extremist conclaves in the West. It systematically destroys religious freedom and freedom of conscience, undercuts the status of women, and subverts the legal process, especially equality before the law.
FP: If, as you say, most Muslims do not buy into this type of Sharia, why is it spreading?
Marshall: Much of the radicalization of Islam, and in more extreme versions of Islamic law, is tied to an increase in Saudi influence.
Iran is also pushing and funding its versions, but, since it is Shiite, its zone of influence is relatively small—mainly Hezbollah in Lebanon, parts of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Arabian Gulf states, and now, very aggressively, in Iraq. The major influence elsewhere, including in the U.S. is Saudi money and propaganda. If we use a Cold War parallel, Saudi Arabia is the seat of the Comintern. (Earlier this year, Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom published a major study of Saudi hate propaganda in the U.S.—it’s available on our website.)
A major factor is intimidation of those Muslims who object. This can range from death threats to fear of being branded “un-Islamic.” Even in Indonesia, the major home of moderate Islam, one high-ranking Member of Parliament told me he is “terrified” of the Islamists. When Muslim scholar Ulil Abshar-Abdalla wrote an article on the historical particularity of Islamic law, he had a fatwa pronounced against him warning that the punishment for insulting Islam is death.
Elsewhere, Muslims who criticize the extremists’ agenda can be attacked by vigilantes or become victims of apostasy and blasphemy laws. The most famous is Salman Rushdie, condemned to death by Khomeini for his book The Satanic Verses, but many others share his plight. In Afghanistan, after Sima Samar’s 2002 appointment as Women’s Affairs Minister, the new Afghan chief justice, Fazul Hadi Shinwari, denounced her for speaking “against the Islamic nation of Afghanistan” and formally charged her with “blasphemy.” Her “crime” was allegedly telling a Canadian magazine that she did not believe in Sharia. Similar strictures have fallen on people in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Extreme Sharia grows in large part because those who oppose it can be vilified, ostracized, imprisoned, beaten, or killed.
FP: Sharia law penalizes the murder of a Muslim much harsher than the murder of a woman or a non-Muslim. If a Muslim kills an “apostate,” he isn’t punished at all. What’s the logic here? Do people who believe this really think there is a God that makes rules like this?
Marshall: Yes, the extremists’ fundamental distinction is between Muslim and non-Muslim, and they include in the latter many Muslims of the ‘wrong’ kind. In Iraq, Zarqawi regards Shiites as heretics, ‘worse than the Jews,’ who hence deserve death. They bomb hospitals and torture their captives to death. In Algeria, they woke children up before they cut their throats so that the terror would be complete. Sudan has crucifixion in its criminal code. Their inhumanity (I use this word very precisely) is almost literally unbelievable.
Commonly the testimony of a woman is given less weight in court, either half that of a man, or occasionally a quarter (in cases of rape, there is a major problem in punishing the perpetrator because you would need several women witnesses to counter the word of one man); and the denial of equal rights under law to non-Muslims, making them second-class citizens, or worse. For example, the penalty for killing a Baha’i in Iran is nothing; there is no penalty at all; they have no legal status.
FP: Give us a few specifics of what has occurred with Nigeria and its form of Sharia.
Marshall: After the northern sate of Zamfara introduced a radical version of Sharia in 1999, Dahiru Sule was flogged with eighty lashes for drinking alcohol, five motorcyclists were arraigned for carrying women, Baba Bello’s right hand was amputated for stealing a cow, and Ahmed Tejan’s eye was removed as punishment for his partially blinding a friend. These events did not attract international attention until Amina Lawal and Fatima Usman were sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery. The state has also required “Islamic” dress and closed churches and non-Muslim schools. These regulations are enforced by hizbah (religious police). In 2002, Zamfara’s Governor, Ahmed Sani, announced that all residents must begin using Arabic, a language few speak, said that Sharia supersedes the Nigerian constitution and indicated that Islam requires Muslims to kill any apostate, which could include a Muslim seeking a trial in a civil rather than sharia court.
In the last five years, tens of thousands of Nigerians have died in violence provoked by Sharia. (In 2004, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz, the Saudi religious and cultural attaché in Nigeria, said he and his government had been monitoring the application of Islamic law in Nigeria and greeted their results “with delight.”) Yobe State’s governor has said he will keep the new laws even at the cost of civil war, while Sani has called for Sharia states to form their own armies to defend Muslims and promote Islam. Combined with Nigeria’s deep ethnic and political divisions, radical Sharia could splinter Africa’s most populous nation. Incidentally, the oil rich area around Nigeria is where the U.S. hopes to get new oil supplies to supplement those from the Middle East.
FP: There are those who say Sharia is compatible with our notion of democracy. What do you think?
Marshall: The extreme forms are the precise antithesis of democracy. See the quotes from bin Laden and Zarqawi above. Since its advocates stress its immediate divine origin, they do not allow the law to be challenged by constitutional limits or democratic votes. In such regimes, questioning the government is effectively equated with questioning God. Since extremists maintain that their laws and rulers are authorized directly by God without any human mediation, political opposition can be treated as apostasy or blasphemy and are potentially punishable by death, either by the state or by private bodies. In Iran, where all political office and activity is conditioned on “compatibility with standards of Shari’a,” Mehrangis Kar, who wrote the chapter on Iran in Radical Islam’s Rules, was sentenced in 2000 for “spreading propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic” under articles 498 and 500 of the Law of Islamic Punishment. In July 2004, Hashem Aghajari, a history professor, had his death sentence for blasphemy overturned but was sentenced to five years in prison, two of them suspended, for “insulting Islamic values.”
The same fate is suffered by thousands of lesser known people throughout the world. As Tashbih Sayyed, the editor in chief of Pakistan Today puts it, “In an Islamist controlled society, debate is forbidden, difference of opinion and dissension is considered a perversion…. Individual reasoning is forbidden. Any expression of doubt about any aspect of the ‘religiously mandated’ social, cultural and political sociology is barred as blasphemy. Anyone attempting to challenge the status quo is instantly declared an apostate.”
FP: What is the future of Sharia?
Marshall: Thirty years ago, only Saudi Arabia had these types of laws, but they have spread in the past quarter century, either pushed by entrenched regimes, such as the Saudis, by rulers who came to power in coups or revolutions, such as in Sudan and Iran, by creeping legislative change, such as in Pakistan and Indonesia, by state-level governments, such as in Nigeria and Malaysia. They are continuing to spread in Africa and Asia. Chechnyan rebels have adopted their Sharia laws from Sudan. It appears from the new draft constitution that Iraq, outside of the Kurdish areas, may also come under Sharia. In our war on radical Islam we are succeeding at a military level, but on the level of ideas and laws we are losing.
FP: Sharia still seems like something far away from North Americans. In what ways is it already hitting close to home?
Marshall: Countries that implement extreme Sharia will almost certainly become anti-American. It is also being imposed by vigilantes against Muslims and others in the West: Note the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and the murder of movie producer Van Gogh last year in the Netherlands. There has been increasing pressure, as in Canada, to implement forms of Sharia in the United States.
FP: What is the best way to fight extreme Sharia?
Marshall: On many levels.
We have to disable the terrorists.
We have to end and counter the propaganda and funding that promotes extremist versions of Islam, much of it stemming from the government of Saudi Arabia. The U.S., notably with the unprecedented public statements by Karen Hughes on September 27, has raised the issue of the Saudis distributing hate propaganda in the U.S. itself, but the Saudis are telling the Administration that what they do elsewhere in the world is none of America’s business. But it is our business when they are spending billions to teach people to hate Americans and other infidels, and we need to end it.
We need to support Muslims who are committed to liberal democracy. (An Indonesian Muslim leader told me last year that he was disgusted by the influx of radical literature flowing into his country from the Gulf, and suggested that some foundations should start getting works of Indonesian Islam translated into Arabic and send it to the Arab world).
We need to expose the destructiveness of this form of Sharia—most Muslims, and others, have no idea of its effects. And also point out that, for all their promises, such Sharia regimes are repressive, widely irreligious, and corrupt Radicals often get support because of their pledge to fight corruption and provide honest government, so we need to point out that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, and so forth are among the most corrupt places on the face of the earth
FP: This is all very depressing and frightening. Is it possible to end on any kind of optimistic note? Are you optimistic? Will freedom and liberty in the West ultimately prevail in the face of extreme Sharia?
Marshall: In the long term I am optimistic, but we have a tough struggle ahead, and at the moment we are failing in the war of ideas, in large part because we are not sure what ideas we are fighting. One silver lining of the recent atrocities in Britain and the Netherlands is that they appear to be shaking those countries out of their stupor in the face of jihadis. If we have the resolution we will prevail—right now we have barely begun to fight.
FP: Paul Marshall, thank you for joining us today and I hope our readers will read
Marshall: Thank you Jamie.
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