*This article was part of a debate between Jeff Scott and I for PolicyMic. Jeff's piece is here.
When it comes to religion, I am generally pretty agnostic, and oppose the imposition of any religion on myself or others. However, the case against allowing Sharia law to arbitrate disputes is a red herring, distracting from the many problems with the U.S. justice system and ignoring the many benefits that stateless, private law provides.
Unfortunately, the supposed threat of Sharia or Islamic law in the U.S. tends to be used as a bogeyman, where less than 3% of the population will somehow force women to wear burqas and the star and the crescent will replace the stars and stripes. But when one looks at the cases that have arisen in the U.S. involving judges using Islamic law to arbitrate a dispute, this simply isn’t the case. For example, last March, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Richard Neilsen in Tampa, Florida, used Sharia law to arbitrate a contractual dispute between two Muslim parties. The parties did not seek to impose religious law on others. Other than the fact that Neilsen presides over a government court, funded through taxation, no other parties were affected.
Secondly, U.S. courts leave a lot to be desired for those seeking justice. Many have dubbed the U.S. justice system as a "prison-industrial complex" where millions are in prison for victimless crimes. There is rampant abuse and corruption of police and government courts, and only after you can afford the costs – in both monetary terms and in time lost from employment, family, etc. – can you go to trial. With so much reform needed, should worries over Islamic law really be a concern?
Finally, the borderline paranoia over anything Islamic in the U.S. ignores what Sharia law represents. In practice, it is very similar to English common law: Privately enforced customary law that evolves and adapts quickly. Americans engage in the private arbitration of disputes all the time, and take for granted how easy and cheap this process can be. Anyone who has ever used companies like Amazon or eBay has implicitly participated in the efficiency and complexity of private law. By allowing and encouraging users to "rate" buyers and sellers, Amazon and eBay create a governing system of horizontally-enforced, decentralized order and conflict resolution without government police or government courts. The tradition of Islamic law, the separation of law from state, follows similar principles.
There are, of course, legitimate concerns over Sharia law. On the one hand, much like Judeo-Christian traditions, Sharia advocates giving money to the poor, not gambling, not eating pork or shellfish, staying sober, not charging interest on loans, and dressing modestly. However, around the world, there are also examples of imposing archaic rules requiring death by stoning and the treatment of women. While one may argue that these are inherent in Sharia law, I see these excesses as a predictable result of imposing any set of laws through the state’s top-down structure.
Law, as every good that is necessary for cooperation and civilization, is essentially a private good that arises from the trials and errors of the bottom-up market order that can and should be enforced without state coercion. Any system of rules, whether Islamic, Christian, or pagan, imposed, by force, on others tends to be abusive, too rigid, and should be opposed. But when it comes to Muslims using Sharia law to arbitrate disputes, as long as it doesn’t threaten the rights of others, then there should be no cause for concern.