Jews and students of Jewish history know well the dangers and often deadly consequences of the accusatory process known as “scapegoating.” In 20th-century America, traditional scapegoats were blacks, suspected communists and, during World War II, Japanese Americans — all were the victims of witch hunts and threats based upon defamatory accusations for activity they were overwhelmingly innocent of.
So when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went on Fox News last week to comment about the deadly truck rampage in Nice, France, his harangue had a ring of disquieting familiarity: “Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be: Western civilization is in a war,” he said. “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in sharia, they should be deported.”
Gingrich’s attack on Islamic religious law was a wholly irresponsible threat to Muslim Americans. It sought to link a terror attack that took place in another country, in other circumstances, to an entire religious group in this country, who share almost nothing with the French killer other than guilt by association in the minds of Gingrich and his ilk.
And while Gingrich later backtracked part of his screed when he realized that one cannot legally deport American citizens, he failed to acknowledge that a bedrock principle of the Constitution he claims to hold so dear is that our laws do not permit litmus tests for religion. Quite simply, from our society’s point of view, what a person believes is nobody’s business.
Gingrich and other Islamophobes trumpet the threat of sharia in the same way as anti-Semites pull something out of the Talmud to make Judaism look threatening or perverse. We cannot tolerate such irresponsible hatred.
Last month, Asifa Quraishi-Landes, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Law, published “Five myths about sharia” in The Washington Post. We suggest that article as a first step in learning more about Islam. “Sharia isn’t even ‘law’ in the sense that we in the West understand it,” she writes. “And most devout Muslims who embrace sharia conceptually don’t think of it as a substitute for civil law.”
Those two sentences suggest a reality richer and more nuanced than Gingrich’s “blunt and direct” rant about a clash of civilizations. And they should also have a familiar ring to members of our own community who ascribe authority to Jewish religious law and the halachic judicial system.
Gingrich was, however, right about one thing: There is a dangerous cultural and nuanced political clash going on. It is between those who respect universal Enlightenment ideals and the fundamental freedoms recorded in the Bill of Rights, and those who espouse an equally universal concept of suspicion, accusation and hate directed at anyone believed to be different. The choice on that one is easy.