A legislative wave is surging through the nation’s heartland: In Tennessee, Louisiana and Arizona, lawmakers have passed statutes prohibiting courts from relying on any foreign law, legal code or system that is contrary to state or federal public policy in reaching their decisions. Similar statutes are being considered in 20 other states.
In some of these statutes and bills, Sharia, or traditional Islamic religious law, is explicitly cited; in others it is not. In either case, civil libertarians and Muslim groups denounce them as efforts to target Islam. And those pushing for these laws don’t deny this.
Republican State Rep. Sally Kern, who sponsored such a bill in Oklahoma, stressed the political potency of the movement, saying, “It’s always helpful when you can say to your colleagues, ‘This piece of legislation is practically identical to about 20 other states.”
One reason those statutes and bills may be similar is the model set out for such legislation two years ago by a little-known Lubavitch-affiliated attorney living quietly in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Through his “American Laws for American Courts” project, David Yerushalmi, a specialist in securities, business and international law, has offered legislators a template that claims to sidestep constitutional objections to singling out Islam by avoiding explicit mention of it (though not all state legislatures have taken this advice).
Yerushalmi’s template, the Anti-Defamation League notes, “has been the basis for anti-Sharia measures introduced by state lawmakers in several states in recent years.”
Now, even as his efforts on this front continue to generate controversy, Yerushalmi has moved on to something new — a study, he says, of some 100 American mosques, which purports to show a direct link between Sharia law and support for “violent jihad.”
Four years in the making, and part of a project costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, Yerushalmi’s study is titled “Shari’a and Violence in American Mosques” and was co-written by Mordechai Kedar, a professor of Middle East studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. It is published in the current issue of the Middle East Quarterly, the flagship publication of the conservative think tank, the Middle East Forum.
The study has been strongly criticized by liberal organizations but seized upon by conservative publications, such as FrontPage Magazine and National Review Online, as proof that Islam constitutes a grave threat to national security. Writing in National Review Online, Andrew McCarthy said the results proved that, “what we wishfully call ‘radicalism’ is in fact the Islamic mainstream.”
In a telephone interview with the Forward, Yerushalmi, 55, said that the motivation behind Islamic extremism could not be explained by socioeconomic, political or cultural factors. “The one common denominator,” he said, “was Sharia.” It is too soon to judge the impact of this latest study, but one of the most striking aspects of Yerushalmi’s activism against Sharia law has been his ability to edge his ideas into the mainstream.
The Southern Poverty Law Center included him in a recent list of the country’s leading Islamophobes, and the Anti-Defamation League has cited his “anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black bigotry.” In his telephone interview, Yerushalmi denied these charges. He said that he had defended black and Muslim clients pro bono and that the real target of his advocacy is liberalism. Among other things, his critics point to the website of his organization, the not-for-profit Society of Americans for National Existence, which he founded in 2007.
Today, the majority of SANE’s website is accessible only to members. But in a series of lengthy front-page articles, Yerushalmi, a native of New Orleans, spells out many of his controversial beliefs.
He emphasizes America’s roots as a white, male-dominated, Christian country. He rails against political correctness that does not allow “hard questions” about why “blacks in NYC are 2.5 times more overrepresented as murderers than any other race.” He also suggests that there may have been a good reason for the Founding Fathers to have allowed states to limit “the political franchise to a subset of the overall adult population,” referring to white male property owners.
In a February 2007 article, he also wrote: “One must admit readily that the radical liberal Jew is a fact of the West and a destructive one. Indeed, Jews in the main have turned their backs on the belief in G-d and His commandments as a book of laws for a particular and chosen people. These Jews, the overwhelming majority, have embraced modernity in its entirety.”
For Yerushalmi, Israel, as a liberal democracy, presents much the same problem. “There is much to despise about Zionist Israel,” he noted in the same 2007 essay. Except for the ultra-Orthodox, he added, “most Israelis are raging Leftists, and this includes the so-called nationalists who found a home in the ‘right-wing’ Likud political bloc or one of the other smaller and more marginal right-wing parties.”
It is liberalism in its broadest sense as a political philosophy, Yerushalmi said, that is the ultimate scourge, because, in his view, it places international law above nationhood, thus threatening national sovereignty and security. And Jews, it seems, have played a special role in its spread.
Still, these days Yerushalmi appears to devote much of SANE’s resources to confronting Islam. Yerushalmi depicts the religion — not some extremist distortion of the religion — as an inherent threat to the West because of its doctrinal goal, as he describes it, of world rule via a caliphate that will impose Sharia law on all its subjects.
“Simply look at the doctrine,” he told a September 2010 Washington gathering. “The goal of Sharia is a worldwide political order in which everyone has imposed upon them Sharia law.”
This is a portrayal that many knowledgeable scholars of the religion deride as crude caricature. Mark Cohen, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and author of “Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages,” noted that historically, even in the areas where Muslims ruled, they did not seek to impose Sharia law on non-Muslims. “Jews and Christians were granted communal autonomy, including the right to live according to their respective legal systems and to adjudicate in their own courts of law,” he said.
Yerushalmi declined to say how much SANE’s survey of 100 mosques cost, or where the money came from. According to its tax records, the group received about $1.1 million in donations from 2007 through 2009, the most recent year available. During that time, it spent about $950,000 on what it described as “information dissemination through advertising and website.” An audit filed in 2007 with the State of Arizona revealed that in that year alone, SANE spent $364,00 on a project called Mapping Shari’a. Yerushalmi said that “Shari’a and Violence in American Mosques” was just one aspect of that work.
“The Mapping Shari’a project was more than simply the study,” he said. ”We researched madrassas and day schools, too. But we don’t provide detailed numbers on that, because it’s not meaningful to the study results.”
Yerushalmi did say that one of the study’s funders was the Center for Security Policy, a neoconservative think tank devoted to opposing what it perceives to be the growing threat of radical Islam in the United States. CSP’s publicly available tax records show only that Yerushalmi, who is CSP’s general counsel, received $153,376 from the group in 2009 — the most recent year available — for consulting.
Yerushalmi said his study proves that there is a correlation between adherence to Sharia law and promotion of violent jihad. Even where there is less adherence to Sharia, he said, imams still promote violence.
“We have the data to say there is a problem in U.S. mosques,” Yerushalmi said.
According to Yerushalmi’s figures, 81% of mosques contained literature that advocated religiously sanctioned violence. Such numbers are similar to those cited by U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who, prior to hearings he held in January into what he described as the threat from domestic Muslim terrorists, claimed that 85% of mosques in the United States are run by extremist leaders.
The director of the Mapping Sharia project, Dave Gaubatz, said, “What we found in 75% of the materials they were advocating was treason, sedition and violence against innocent people.”
Like Yerushalmi, Gaubatz is a controversial figure. The Southern Poverty Law Center included him in its list of leading Islamophobes, quoting his reference to Barack Obama as “our Muslim leader” and his comparison of Islam to a “terminal disease.” Gaubatz’s 2009 book, “Muslim Mafia,” detailed an alleged plot by the Council on American-Islamic Relations to infiltrate the American government. It was based largely on 12,000 documents that Gaubatz’s son, Chris, stole by posing as a Muslim intern at CAIR. Under a threat of legal action by CAIR, he has since returned the files.
Gaubatz was paid $350,000 for a two-year stint as director of the Mapping Shari’a study. Yerushalmi said those funds included hiring researchers and paying for surveyors, but he would not provide a breakdown of the costs.
In a telephone interview, Gaubatz described how he and one full-time and one part-time researcher spent 18 months crisscrossing the country.
Wearing what they said were “Sharia adherent” disguises, the researchers independently visited 100 mosques and Islamic centers, where they collected various data, such as the length of the imam’s beard and whether he wore a watch on his right wrist, the percentage of worshippers wearing hats and the reading materials available to visitors. Gaubatz described these as markers for gauging whether and to what extent a mosque should be seen as extremist. Each of these attributes “comes from Sharia,” he said.
As for his own appearance while visiting these mosques, Gaubatz said: “My beard was approximately 1 inch. I had no mustache and no gold jewelry.”
But Edward Curtis, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said that such criteria are absurd.
“It’s hard to take them seriously, frankly,” Curtis said. “Sharia is huge, it can’t be contained in 10 volumes, so why would those criteria be the criteria by which you would judge Sharia adherence?”
Curtis also cited a recent national survey of American Muslims, which found that mosques actually help Muslims integrate into American society. The Muslim American Public Opinion Survey, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council and the University of Washington, found a relationship between higher levels of involvement in mosque-related activities and participation in American politics.
Referring to “Shari’a and Violence in American Mosques,” Curtis said, “This Islamophobic report does not address the body of peer-reviewed scholarship that contradicts its findings, and it exaggerates the presence of terrorism among Muslim Americans. “Finally, it does not measure the single most important factor in the decision-making process of the very few Muslim Americans who become terrorists: the role of U.S. foreign policy and military interventions in the Muslim world.”
Efraim Karsh, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College, London, said Yerushalmi’s study would stand up to scrutiny. It, too, was peer-reviewed he noted. He declined to name the academics who had conducted the peer review, a common practice in scholarly journals.
But when asked how they were chosen, Karsh said: “Middle East studies are very politicized. So, you will find a lot of people that conform to [certain] political views — people who say jihad is peaceful. You have other people…. Let me put it this way: The people who looked at it are knowledgeable.”
Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, questioned the report’s methodology. “I applaud the effort to collect systematic empirical observations of American Muslim communities,” Kurzman said. “That said, the methods seem highly tendentious.”
Kurzman asked whether Yerushalmi would release full details of the study so that it could be independently verified. Yerushalmi said he would not do so for fear that he could be held responsible if “some nut goes out and decides to take matters into his own hands.”
Kurzman, author of the forthcoming book, “The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists,” said that since 9/11, mosques have been quick to snuff out radicalization. A recent study he wrote, “Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting,” found that of about 200 Muslim Americans involved in attempted terrorist attacks, about one-quarter were turned in by the Muslim-American community. The few mosques that do have extremist elements, he said, are believed to be deeply infiltrated by the FBI.