Mark Mellman: Murky polling on Muslims

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Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim demagoguery is the latest attempt to undermine the pluralism and diversity that are among America’s greatest strengths.

To bolster their claims, demagogues frequently resort to pseudoscience, and Trump is no exception.

{mosads}Last week, he cited a questionable poll in support of his proposal to bar Muslims from the U.S.

Kellyanne Conway, who conducted the survey, rightly complained that Trump misused her poll and readily acknowledged one of its chief methodological shortcomings — it is an opt-in, online poll, not a random sample. 

As a result, one cannot say that it represents the views of American Muslims.

For many, that fact is sufficient to dismiss the poll. There is, however, a deeper critique that goes to the questions themselves — and their interpretation.

The poll sponsor, the Center for Security Policy (CSP), issued a release claiming respondents’ attitudes toward the role of Sharia law “pose a threat to America’s … constitutional form of government.”

What stands behind this particular piece of hysteria? 

According to the CSP, “a majority (51%) agreed that ‘Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to sharia,’ ” juxtaposing it with the Constitution.

One has to understand that Sharia is simply Islamic religious law. While the content is different, its scope and nature is similar to Jewish law; both are legal systems of religions that see themselves as “ways of life.” Muslim law, like Jewish law, covers personal status, torts, contracts and criminal law, as well as ritual practice.

What does Sharia mean to American Muslims? The CSP asked but ignored the answer.

Nearly half defined Sharia as “a guide to the personal practice of Islam.” 

Just 11 percent offered the response the center apparently wanted: “The Muslim God Allah’s law that Muslims must follow and impose worldwide by jihad.” 

So just one in 10 of those who responded to this survey see Sharia as something to be imposed on others.

Denied its preferred answer to this question, the CSP focused on another: “Should Muslims in the U.S. have their own courts or tribunals in America to apply sharia law or should they be subject to American laws and courts?”

Again, some background: Like Catholics and Jews, Muslims have religious courts in the U.S. that deal mostly with matters of personal status (divorce, conversion, etc.), as well as with civil claims and contract issues when — and only when — both parties agree to have their matter arbitrated by one of these religious courts.

If you had a religious marriage and want a religious divorce, should you be able to go to a religious court? Certainly.

Do you still need a civil divorce to marry again in this country? Absolutely. If there’s disagreement between spouses on the division of property or custody, do both have recourse to civil courts? Yes.

If both parties decide the arbitrators in their dispute should be imams, or rabbis or members of the American Arbitration Association, can they? Yes, as long as that court complies with the arbitration laws of the United States.

So the question and its interpretation reflect fundamental ignorance of the subject.

Moreover, go back to the wording itself: “Should Muslims in the U.S. have their own courts … to apply sharia law?” Well who the heck else is going to apply Sharia law? A Jewish court? A secular one? The Catholic Church’s diocesan tribunals?

The question could hardly be more confusing. And yet, only 15 percent of respondents to this survey said their community should only be governed by Sharia courts.

Perhaps more troubling is the fact that “only” 43 percent of respondents said, “If sharia conflicts with the U.S. Constitution and the bill of rights,” the latter should be “supreme.” Ignore for a minute the ambiguity of the word “supreme” in a religious context — the survey itself finds only 21 percent believe there is a possibility of such a conflict. 

Moreover, those who are religiously observant are half as likely as the nonobservant to see a conflict. So the very people who care most about Sharia are least likely to believe there could be a conflict between it and the Constitution.

In short, the CSP has created an issue where none is apparent, except perhaps to a small minority.

Next year, we’ll examine how the CSP handled jihad and violence.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.

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