Posted by: N.S. Palmer | December 3, 2008

Islamic Courts: Coming Soon to Your Town?

By N.S. Palmer

Once upon a time, it was the Carthaginians who were coming to get you. Or the Etruscans. Or the Spartans. Or the French. Or the Germans. Or the Japs. Or the Spanish. Or the Catholics.

For most of the 20th century, it was the Godless Commies who were hiding under every bed. They worked tirelessly, so we were told, to subvert all that was free and good in our societies. They infiltrated the schools to poison the minds of our young. They infiltrated the labour unions to cripple industry. And they agitated for so-called “civil rights” to foment rioting and “uppitiness amongst the Negroes.”

Since the Bush-Cheney regime’s signature event of “9/11,” it’s been the Heathen Muslims who are out to get us. They’re not Godless, but they’re even worse: they really believe in all that religion stuff. They take it seriously. And they’re every bit as sneaky as the Godless Commies: anyone could be a secret Muslim, and probably is. They’re infiltrating your neighbourhood. They’re building mosques. They’re recruiting the blacks. They’re plotting mayhem. They’re comin’ to gitchya, and they’re gonna take yer wimminfolk, too.

Oh, Good Lord, do we have to go through this homicidal foolishness yet again with another so-called “enemy”? I guess that we do.

“The Other” Is Always Out to Get You

All people have evil impulses: that’s part of being human. In the Jewish tradition, the impulse to evil is called yetzer hara , while the impulse to good is called yetzer hatov. In Christianity, the impulse to evil is embodied in the idea that man is a “fallen” being who is not good by default, like the angels, but who must choose good over evil. For Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, our impulses to evil were in the part of our minds called the Id, while moral conscience was in the superego. These concepts even found their way into popular culture, in classic science fiction movies such as “Forbidden Planet,” about which I will say no more because everyone should see it and I don’t want to spoil the ending. In terms of evolutionary biology, we inherit amoral animal impulses from our pre-human ancestors.

We dislike finding these evil impulses in ourselves. They make us feel ashamed, so we often try to deny that we have them.* One way to deny it is to attribute them to somebody else, via a psychological process called projection. Transactional analysis, a modern popularization of Freud, calls this strategy I’m OK, You’re Not OK. The group to which we attribute our own evil impulses is called the other.

Psychologically, the other is a group of people on whom we project all of our own undesirable qualities: our aggression, lust, dishonesty, irrationality, envy, and so forth. It’s like a film screen on which we watch the horror movie of our own worst and most frightening selves.

We use the other group as a scapegoat for our own sins and shortcomings. By doing so, we symbolically cleanse ourselves of evil and achieve self-esteem. But even if it makes us feel good about ourselves, demonizing the other makes us perceive it in wildly unrealistic and negative terms.

The situation becomes even more dangerous if we can talk ourselves into attacking and killing the people in the other group. Because we see those people as a symbol of our own evil impulses, we see destroying them as a symbolic way to destroy the evil in ourselves. Unfortunately, such acts of aggression mean that we are following our evil impulses instead of eliminating them.

In the West, many people perceive Muslims as “the other.” The situation is complicated by the fact that many Muslims see us as “the other.” Each group attributes only the best, most peaceful motives to itself and only the worst, most aggressive motives to the other. The only way we’re ever going to live in peace is for each group to achieve some realistic understanding of the other group. Freud would say that we need to move beyond seeing each other as psychological symbols of our own projected evil, and see each other instead as real human beings.

Islamic Courts: Coming Soon to Your Town?

The most recent alarms about Islam were raised in a September 14, 2008 article in The (London) Sunday Times. That article was followed two months later by a November 19th New York Times article about the increasing number of Islamic courts in Great Britain and the existence of similar courts in the United States.

According to The Sunday Times:

The government has quietly sanctioned the powers for sharia judges to rule on cases ranging from divorce and financial disputes to those involving domestic violence. … Previously, the rulings of sharia courts in Britain could not be enforced, and depended on voluntary compliance among Muslims.

The follow-up article in The New York Times added that:

But ever since the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, called in February for aspects of Islamic Shariah to be embraced alongside the traditional legal system, the government has been grappling with a public furor over the issue. [In addition,] Courts in the United States have endorsed Islamic and other religious tribunals, as in 2003, when a Texas appeals court referred a divorce case to a local council called the Texas Islamic Court.

To their credit, both newspapers mention, though without emphasis, three facts that are vital in determining how much of a “threat” Islamic courts are to Western political and legal rights. They leave out a fourth, historical fact that’s also relevant.

Fact #1: Islamic Courts are legally equivalent to arbitration

First, the Islamic courts offer services that are legally equivalent to arbitration — nothing more. Arbitration is a cheaper, faster alternative to trying cases in court. If both parties agree to binding arbitration, then the arbitrator’s decision has the force of law — in Britain, it falls under the Arbitration Act of 1996. That much has nothing to do with Islamic courts. It applies to everyone. In Britain, as in other countries, private arbitrators can decide cases that otherwise might go to court. Sometimes, the private arbitrators are Islamic scholars, but they’re just applying an already-existing law.

In addition, people who take their disputes to arbitration (Islamic or not) go because they agreed to do so. No one is forced to do it.

The New York Times article begins with the statement: “The woman in black wanted an Islamic divorce.” That case is representative. If you want an Islamic divorce, you can’t get one from secular government courts. The article continues:

Indeed, most of the courts’ judgments have no standing under British civil law. But for the parties who come before them, the courts offer something more important: the imprimatur of God.

Fact #2: They handle only civil cases

Second, they handle only civil cases such as divorce, inheritance, and property disputes. Criminal cases, whether involving Muslims or not, are handled by the mainstream legal system. Islamic law (“Shari’a”) has historically prescribed more severe punishments than modern Western societies consider reasonable, but such cases are not handled by Islamic courts in non-Muslim countries. According to one Islamic jurist quoted in The Times, “All we are doing is regulating community affairs in these cases.”

Fact #3: Other religions have similar courts

The Times notes that:

Jewish Beth Din courts operate under the same provision in the Arbitration Act and resolve civil cases ranging from divorce to business disputes. They have existed in Britain for more than 100 years, and previously operated under a precursor to the act.

So there’s nothing new or unique about Islamic courts. Jewish and Christian courts don’t bother us. The only difference is that we haven’t been conditioned to think of Judaism and Christianity as breeding grounds for terrorists.

Fact #4: Historically, Islamic countries gave similar rights to their own religious minorities

That applies especially to Judaism and Christianity, which Islam regards as its closest religious relatives. Jews and Christians living in Islamic countries are considered dhimmi, that is, “protected people” whose religious practices are officially tolerated by the Muslim state (The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 117). Dhimmi had to pay a special tax and were subject to restrictions that varied depending on the country. However,  Bernard Lewis, a Princeton University professor who is a world-renowned authority on the Middle East and Islam, writes:

The position of non-Muslims in the Muslim world was in general far better than the position of non-Christians or, still worse, deviant Christians in most Christian countries. … In the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century reforms, dhimmi communities, Jews and Christians of various churches, formed their own communities, under their own heads and subject to their own laws, administered by their own courts, in such matters as marriage and divorce, inheritance, and much else. (Islam: The Religion and the People, pp. 56-57.)

Most Britons and Americans don’t know that, but you can be sure that most Muslims know it. And they see Islamic courts as nothing more than equal treatment.

Islam: Religion of Terrorists?

But isn’t the main problem that Islam is a religion of terrorists?

No. It’s true that some Muslims are terrorists. And it’s true that you can find violent passages in the Qur’an (the Koran). But those things apply equally to Judaism, Christianity, and most other religions.

In any large social or religious group, a minority of people will be prone to violence and hatred. In almost any religious tradition, some elements will be enlightened and some will be barbaric. Here are a few relevant facts:

  • When two Muslims greet each other, they say Salam alaykum (“peace be with you”), which is closely related (because Arabic and Hebrew are both Semitic languages) to the Jewish greeting of Shalom aleichem (“peace be with you”).
  • The five pillars of Islam are (1) The creed “I testify that there is no God but Allah. I testify that Mohammed is the prophet of Allah.” (2) Prayer; (3) Charity; (4) Fasting; and (5) Pilgrimage. If you do all five of those things correctly, then surprise! You’re considered a Muslim. Notice that “terrorism” is not on the list.
  • “Muslim fighters are commanded not to kill women, children, or the aged unless they attack first; not to torture or otherwise ill-treat prisoners; to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities or their resumption after a truce; and to honor agreements.” (Lewis, op cit, p. 151)
  • “The emergence of the by now widespread practice of suicide bombing is a development of the 20th century. It has no antecedents in Islamic history and no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition. It is a pity that those who practice this form of terrorism are not better acquainted with their own religion.” (Lewis, op cit, p. 153)

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Singer-satirist Tom Lehrer said it best in his song about “National Brotherhood Week:”

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks,
And the black folks hate the white folks.
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

It’s not easy to see “the other” as someone just like ourselves. However, if we want to be true to the best lights of our religions and our civilizations, we have to try: Jew, Christian, and Muslim alike, along with Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and everyone else.

It’s our planet and our societies at issue. We can make them into a heaven or a hell. God, by whatever name we call Him, won’t force us to choose one way or the other. He’s leaving it up to us.

* Freud made the very important distinction between having evil impulses and acting on them. We all have evil impulses: that’s part of our nature. Merely having evil impulses does not make us evil. It’s what we choose to do about our evil impulses that determines our moral status. It’s in the choice to turn away from our evil impulses and follow the path of goodness that we become morally good beings.

Copyright 2008 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as copyright notice and URL ( are included.


  1. This came up in a big way in Ontario about three years ago. The province was seriously considering the institution of Sharia courts for settling family disputes for Muslims, and making the rulings binding. In the end, there were questions raised about the constitutionality of separate courts, establishment of religion, opening the door to the proliferation of separate legal systems, jurisdiction in cases of mixed marriages or family situations, on and on. The premier, Dalton McGuinty, was persuaded that going ahead would “threaten our common ground”, and finally decided “There will be no Shariah law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians.” It had implications, too, for the Jewish and Catholic boards that had been doing the same thing since 1991.

    I was of two minds about it at the time. Initially, I supported it, because it seemed progressive and it was letting people follow their own ways. But eventually I came to see that the crux of the matter was entrenching it in law. It’s fine if someone wants to go to the minister of their religion for guidance and to work things out. More power to them, absolutely. But it’s that they should have the power of law to compel all parties to comply that I eventually found I didn’t agree with. In a democracy, ultimately, there should be one law and one law only, not competing factions and overlapping competencies. In the long run, I think the premier made the right call for Ontario.

  2. I agree with you that a society should be governed by one legal system, but it does not seem to me that Islamic courts contravene that prescription. They operate under the laws of the non-Muslim societies in which they exist (at least in Britain and the U.S.). According to UK Justice Minister Jack Straw, quoted in the NYT article, “There is nothing whatever in English law that prevents people abiding by Shariah principles if they wish to, provided they do not come into conflict with English law.”

    Ontario’s premier also has a point. The presence of incompatible alien cultures and practices, however legal or benign, does create challenges for a harmonious society. If the problem were easy, we would all have solved it by now.

  3. But ever since the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, called in February for aspects of Islamic Shariah to be embraced alongside the traditional legal system

    New York Times has it wrong unfortunately. Williams said no such thing. He simply said that because there are so many Muslims now in the UK, the legal system might have to make accommodations for Sharia law in certain cases. His comments were warped by people who think that Muslim is just another word for terrorist and that Sharia law is some barbaric, stone age pretense at a legal system. (As if the religious laws demanded by Evangelical fundamentalists are much better than any other reactionary system out there…)

    But nice comparison to the Red Scares. As I’m sure you know, the Red Scares hold a special significance in my heart. Speaking of which, I did do a bit about the cultural impacts of the Red Scare on the US:

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