By Steven Philp
Over the past year, more than half of all state legislatures have considered proposals that would prevent judges from consulting faith-based or foreign legal codes. Tennessee and Louisiana have successfully adopted such measures, while Oklahoma recently became the battleground for a bill that identifies what many believe is the true target of this growing movement: a prohibition against the application of Sharia, an Islamic legal code derived from scripture, tradition, and centuries of interpretation. According to a recent article from Crown Heights News, the anti-Sharia movement has gained remarkable appeal as near-identical proposals are replicated in state legislatures across the country. Republican State Representative Sally Kern, a sponsor of the Oklahoma bill, explained, “It’s always helpful when you can say to your colleagues: this piece of legislation is practically identical to about 20 other states.” An article in the New York Times points out that the anti-Sharia movement finds its potency in the meeting of several factors, including the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic center near the rising World Trade Center in New York, paranoia concerning domestic terrorism fueled by events such as the tragedy in Norway, and the advent of the Tea Party. Yet the similarity of over two-dozen proposals cannot be attributed to coincidence alone. Rather, the anti-Sharia movement reflects the efforts of a relatively unknown lawyer from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It is time to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
David Yerushalmi—a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew, and the father of the American anti-Sharia movement—is not adverse to controversy; in an essay published in 2006, Yerushalmi offered an interpretation of race that came uncomfortably close to the tenets of eugenics, stating: “most of the fundamental differences between the races are genetic.” He continued, asking why “people find it so difficult to confront the facts that some races perform better in sports, some better in mathematical problem-solving, some better in language, some better in Western societies and some better in tribal ones?” Accordingly, Yerushalmi has endeavored to prove that Islam lies in opposition to the political and economic freedom of the West—and that Sharia may be one of the greatest threats to American society since the Red Scare gripped our country. According to the New York Times, over the past five years he has worked with conservative public policy groups and former intelligence officials to draft reports, file lawsuits, and craft the legislation that has taken the country by storm. And his audience is not limited to ultra-conservative fringe groups, but has been taken up by prominent politicians such as Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Michelle Bachmann. The latter two recently signed a pledge authored by the Family Leader that included an injunction against “Sharia Islam.”
Born in South Florida, Yerushalmi became interested in Sharia after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At the time he was living in Ma’ale Adumim—a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank—working on commercial litigation, while offering his services to a conservative research institute dedicated to the promotion of free market reform in Israel. After returning to the United States, he began his study of Islam under two Islamic scholars, both of whom he refused to name. He told the New York Times that his research led him to the conclusion that militant groups—such as those that perpetrated 9/11—had not “perverted” Islam, but were reflective of a tradition that seeks global hegemony. In January 2006, Yerushalmi started the Society of Americans for National Existence, an organization to promote legislation that demanded punishment for individuals caught observing Sharia, while raising funds for a project called Mapping Sharia, which seeks to establish a link between American mosques and jihadist groups. This led Yerushalmi to a partnership with conservative policy analyst Frank Gaffney – as president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, Gaffney has been able to secure meetings with prominent neoconservative and Tea Party leaders. The results have been mixed. On one hand, there has been the successful integration of an anti-Sharia polemic into conservative rhetoric. Yet bills proposing a ban on Islamic law have failed to pass constitutional muster; the controversial measure in Oklahoma was blocked by a federal judge, after the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an American Muslim advocacy group, claimed the law was an infringement on religious freedom.
To what end is a movement against Sharia necessary? Speaking to the New York Times, Salam Al-Marayati, the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, explained that these efforts are embedded in gross misperceptions of Islam: “The fact is there is no Shariah takeover in America.” He continued, “It’s purely a political wedge to create fear and hysteria.” Andrew F. March, an associate professor studying Islamic law at Yale University, lends credence to this line of thinking, explaining that the perception of Sharia as a unified, authoritative source is misleading. “Even in Muslim-majority countries, there is a huge debate about what it means to apply Islamic law in the modern world,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. Yet however incongruent Yerushalmi’s arguments may be with reality, his stance on Islam has finally pushed this small-time lawyer in to the national spotlight—with some, not so favorably. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have condemned him for his bigoted polemics. However, this is good enough for him; Yerushalmi explains that his cause hinges less on personal success, and more on public awareness. “The purpose was heuristic,” he said. “To get people asking this question: What is Shariah?”