Legalizing Othering: Interview with Laila Abdelaziz

Interview

September 08, 2017

Laila Abdelaziz: Sharia in US Courts and American Laws for American Courts (ALAC)

At the time of interview, Laila Abdelaziz was the Legislative & Government Affairs Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida. Laila’s work advanced CAIR Florida's mission to challenge Islamophobia and promote civil rights by leading advocacy campaigns that specifically engaged with local, state, and federal governmental agencies and officials.
 
Q1: Historically, have there been other laws or legislative campaigns in the United States that sought to single out a specific religion or group of people based on their religious beliefs?
 
With a nation as diverse as ours, there is definitely a history of either policy or legislative efforts that have targeted religious groups or religious beliefs. As early as the founding of our nation, there were attempts and public sentiments that tried to exclude Catholics from constitutional protections. The 19th century saw anti-Mormon sentiments rise throughout the country and, later, anti-Semitism increased throughout the early 20th century. But, largely, constitutional protections and religious disestablishment have protected minority faith communities throughout the US from laws that infringe on their rights. There is no example that I am familiar with that compares to the false demonization and miseducation of the US public regarding a faith principle of a minority faith community that has led to as successful of a legislative effort as we have seen with the anti-sharia laws that marginalize American Muslims.
 
Q2: Is it possible to use Sharia in US courts when making judicial decisions? If so, under what circumstances or what context?
 
In order to answer that question, one must first understand what “sharia” is. Within the vast Muslim faith, “sharia” is a simple concept of guidelines to live by. The Arabic word, “sharia,” can best be translated as a “path” or “guidance” and the concept within the Muslim faith includes Islamic guidelines regarding prayer, giving charity, inheritance, marriage, and manners. A common instance American Muslims would seek the application of Islamic guidelines in a US court would be when seeking to honor contracts entered between parties during a divorce or estate planning.  
 
Q3: Are anti-Sharia or anti-foreign laws necessary as judges already have the power to apply state and federal laws in courts?
 
Proponents of anti-sharia laws or foreign law bans have failed to cite any instance of a US judge applying Islamic or foreign law in a way that violates an American’s rights. These laws are not necessary because there simply is no history or record of Islamic or foreign law trumping US constitutional rights in US courts.
 
Not only are anti-Sharia and anti-foreign laws, as they are currently written, unnecessary but these legislative efforts could actually prevent the judicial branch from being able to arbitrate disputes in accordance with the law and tradition chosen by the parties. These laws also challenge judicial discretion, as they are legislative efforts that interfere or could interfere with judicial responsibilities.
 
Q4: What are, or what might we anticipate, are the future effects of states implementing “American Laws for American Courts” amendments or acts?
 
The most immediate impact of legislative efforts to implement ALAC legislation is the marginalization of American Muslim communities. When government officials, and especially legislators, seek to diminish the civil rights of American Muslims by falsely presenting an aspect of the Muslim faith as mutually exclusive to American values, they are misleading their constituents and fostering misunderstanding between neighbors. These efforts do little other than give government-sanctioned credence to misunderstanding, Islamophobia, and bigotry.
 
**Interview edited for clarity