By John Esposito, for the Washington Post:

One of the frequent battle cries raised by those who warn that Muslims want to overwhelm the West is that that Muslims want to impose Shariah in America and Europe. Just as critics of Islam in the West question whether Islam is compatible with democracy and Muslims can be loyal citizens, many Muslims, in light of the rise and increase of Islamophobia and threats to their civil liberties, ask if democracy can accommodate Islam. Others, Some Muslims in the West in light of have also questioned, for different reasons, whether they could be both good Muslims and loyal citizens in of “foreign” non-Muslim states based on a Western secular laws? More isolationist and militant Muslims tend to associate Western countries and societies with kufr, unbelief, and look upon its citizens as unbelievers to be avoided, converted or attacked.

While devout Jews can follow Jewish law and Christians follow their doctrines and laws and be at the same time fully American citizens, can Muslims? What is the relationship of the need to follow Shariah to Muslims living in non-Muslim societies? Is there something peculiar about Islam that presents Muslim from living in a secular pluralistic America or Europe?

Although Shariah is often simply and falsely equated with Islamic law, by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, it should not be. Shariah refers to God’s Will, laws, principles and values, found in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. Islamic law is the product of early jurists who interpreted and developed during it in the early Islamic centuries. Therefore, Islamic law is the product not only of the divine revelation and guidance but also of religious scholars reasoning and interpretation, their attempt to formulate a blueprint, for individuals and society, for personal and public life. Moreover, the early framers developed Islamic law in and for Islamic empires and societies, not for Muslims living permanently in non-Muslim societies. While it was expected that Muslims (traders, scholars and others) might live for a time outside the lands of Islam, the expected ideal was to live in a Muslim society and there was no felt need to develop a law for permanent minority communities.

So what about the role of Shariah today for Muslims living in non-Muslim societies like the U.S or European countries? This question is especially important since for the first time in history permanent Muslim communities exist as religious minority communities across the globe. Like followers of other faiths, Muslims can and do fulfill the personal religious obligations of their faith. But what are Muslims to do about the other areas of Islamic law?

As is the case for other faiths, the starting point, in order to better meet the needs of the faithful in modern times, is to ask what parts of the religious tradition, in this case Islamic law, remain unchanging and what can be changed.

A common ground for reformers is to recognize the difference between the binding nature of two broad divisions Islamic law: personal and public, rules governing strictly ‘religious’ observances (such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage) and civil/criminal transactions (some regulations re marriage, divorce, inheritance, crimes and punishments, and issues of war and peace). The former is believed to be binding on all Muslims and unchanging; much of the latter, many of whose regulations are based upon human reasoning and deductions in specific early historical contexts, is capable of readjustment in light of new historical and social contexts and circumstances.

From this starting point, Muslims have addressed this issue in a number of ways. Many Muslims in the West look to religious leaders and muftis, both here and overseas: their writings, DVDs, and internet for guidance and fatwas. In the US and Europe there are organizations and institutions like the European and North American Fiqh (law) Councils that address and issue fatwas on Islamic law and practice that cover diverse questions and problems: from marriage, divorce, abortion, sterilization and stem cell research to issues of war and peace, the environment, banking and finance and gender (for example whether a woman can lead the Friday congregational prayer). Many of these questions are similar to those that Christians and Jews address to their religious leaders.

Many reformers note that Muslims in the West, like other Europeans and Americans, share an identity informed by multiple sub-cultures. Muslims are Muslim by religion and French, British, German, American by culture. Like Roman Catholic reformers in the 20th century, who faced a similar question regarding Catholic life and loyalty in a non-Catholic secular society where some of its laws and cultural practices differed from the teachings of their faith, Muslim reformers argue that to embrace secularism and an open society is not a betrayal of Muslim principles for it enables all citizens to live together and the necessary condition for religious freedom–for Muslims and others.

The Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, a European Muslim with a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago, counsels Muslims to recognize that the West does not have a monopoly over values: that universal values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights are not solely Western but also Islamic. Moreover, he believes that European Muslims can become an example to Muslims in the Middle East.

Can any accommodation be made between religious beliefs and Western cultural norms?

A related and contentious question has been whether European and American legal systems should accommodate some aspects of Islamic law. The explosiveness of this question could be seen in reactions in the United Kingdom to Rowan Williams’, the Archbishop of Canterbury, comments about Shariah law in a lecture – “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective” at London’s Royal Courts of Justice. The Archbishop set out: “to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state, with a few thought about what might be entailed in crafting a just and constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom.”

Media headlines blared: “Archbishop calls for implementation of Shariah law in Britain.” However, the Archbishop was not calling for implementation of Shariah law for non-Muslims but to address the question of whether British Muslims should have the same rights and choice that Orthodox Jews and Catholics already enjoy. For example, as he noted, the London Beth Din Jewish Courts adjudicate civil disputes. An award given by the Beth Din has the full force of an Arbitration Award and may be enforced (with prior permission of the Beth Din) by the civil courts. Parties who submit to such courts agree, as a matter of contract, to accept their decisions. The public courts enforce awards just as they would enforce other agreements as long as they do not contradict or override British law.
The situation in the US, where the line between church and state is more sharply drawn, is quite different. For example, in a secular Great Britain and some other secular European governments, church and state are not completely separate: the monarch is the head of the church or must be a member of the established church and government funding is provided for some religious institutions and their activities.

In America, Muslims, like members of other faiths, can draw on their religious law to govern internal matters and as a guide in family and social behavior as long as they do not violate civil law. At the same time, there are informal or non-judicial areas where religious leaders and scholars are consulted by the president, Congress and other government officials on public issues such as abortion, stem cell research, and health care. Many hospitals and physicians today consult with Muslim and non-Muslim scholars on sensitive religious and cultural issues in their treatment of Muslim patients and some suggest that it might be useful to have religious arbitration councils at the service of the courts to mediate in family law disputes.

But what do Muslim do when in some instances American laws are contrary to their beliefs? Respond in the same way as members of other faith traditions –by recognizing the democratic process and pluralistic nature of society and, if one wishes, work within the system to change it through lobbying the government concerning laws and appointments of Supreme Court judges just as many Americans, of all faiths and of no faith, have done on issues like prayer in the schools and abortion.