Saturday, March 12, 2011

Religion Dispatches' Sarah Posner on the "Shari'ah Conspiracy Theory Industry"

Excellent piece up this week from Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches that profiles the conservative cottage industry that has grown up around the demonization of Islam, and the fear about Sharia law in particular. Posner's terrifically comprehensive article goes behind the scenes of recent conservative political posturing to illuminate the amorphous network of conspiracy theorists and self-styled 'experts' routinely trundled in front of the media to reinforce an uninformed, reductionistic account of Islam and the grave threat it poses to life as we know it.

To this end, Posner identifies a unifying narrative underlying the recent trend of Islamophobic conservative fear-mongering:
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.
In contrast to this narative, Posner offers a brief reflection on the historical contestation and incredible diversity of opinions regarding Sharia law and the ways in which it is understood and practiced. This dynamism presents an understanding of Sharia quite contrary to the rigid, monolithic presentation that dominates the conservative narrative described above. In particular - and not that this would necessarily assuage the fear of many conservatives, especially given their recent fixation with President Obama's "anti-colonial worldview - Posner notes the function of Sharia law as a locus of post-colonial resistance to the imperialistic imposition of European systems of law and government, but explains that even in these contexts "there is no single school of thought on what shari‘ah, or divine law, is or means—and there is no single, accepted legal code."

Of particular note for progressive religionists, Posner highlights that the threat posed by Islam and Sharia law is being framed by conservatives not only in political language - Islam and Sharia both being antithetical to the Constitution, of course - but in theological terms as well. Posner highlights the far-right conservative religious organizations, both Christian and Jewish, involved in funding and promoting the anti-Islamic conservative narrative. Challenges against Islam offered by such organizations range from the denial of the legitimacy of Islam as a religion, to more militaristic lingo that frequently utilizes imagery from the Crusades and presents Islam as locked in a "theological war" with its Abrahamic siblings, Christianity and Judaism.

Given the national platform provided the Islamophobic conservative misinformation machine this week during Rep. Peter King's controversial congressional hearings, Posner's article is as timely as it is vital. Conservative pundits, state politicians, and now increasingly potential 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls like Rick Santorum are using popular ignorance about Islam to stoke fear among heir constituents and rally the conservative base. Posner's article does a terrific job of attacking the credibility of the conservative anti-Islamic narrative, but also of offers an important alternative to this narrative by presenting readers with contradictory views and evidence from legitimate experts and actual Muslims. If the conservative spin machine is going to continue to utilize theological language and concepts to justify its bigotry, religious progressives must be prepared to take a similar tack in not only challenging the theological arguments put forward by conservatives, but by simultaneously offering informed, constructive theological alternatives that demonstrate the myriad values, beliefs, and practices shared by Islam and the other faiths that make up the pluralistic mosaic that is the United States of America.