Michael Gerson
Opinion writer December 12, 2011

The epochs of Newt Gingrich’s public life are defined by the books that have revolutionized him — generally of the type that sell well at airports. There is Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy, Alvin Toffler’s “The Third Wave,” Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich,” Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and various foundational texts of Total Quality Management and Lean Six Sigma.

These idea crushes are mostly harmless. Sometimes they are not. Gingrich has recently been captured by the theory, developed in books such as Andrew C. McCarthy’s “The Grand Jihad,” that sharia law is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and the world as we know it.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. View Archive

Does this seem an exaggerated description of Gingrich’s view? Here is the former speaker: “Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and the world as we know it.” Gingrich often precludes the possibility of exaggeration.

The Republican front-runner set out his argument about Islamic law in a speech last year to the American Enterprise Institute. The United States’ problem, Gingrich argued, is not primarily terrorism; it is sharia — “the heart of the enemy movement from which the terrorists spring forth.” Sharia law, in his view, is inherently brutal — defined by oppression, stonings and beheadings. Its triumph is pursued not only by violent jihadists but by stealthy ones attending the mosque down the street. “The victory of sharia,” he concludes, “would clearly mean the end of the government Lincoln was describing.”

It was not a casual theme. Gingrich Productions has generated a movie on the topic called “America at Risk: The War With No Name.” Gingrich has called for a “federal law that says sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States” — leaving the impression of a threat as real in Topeka as it is in Riyadh.

So Gingrich would be the United States’ first officially ­anti-sharia president. And he knows exactly what sharia really means. It is totalitarianism.

Who else shares this interpretation of sharia law? Well, totalitarians naturally do. Gingrich joins Iranian clerics, Taliban leaders and Salafists of various stripes in believing that the most authentic expression of sharia law is fundamentalism and despotism.

Other Muslims — many other Muslims — dispute this. The varied traditions of Islamic jurisprudence assign different weights to scripture, tradition, reason and consensus in the interpretation of Islamic law. Some assert it is identical to the cultural and legal practices of 7th-century Arabia, creating a real global danger. But others believe it is a set of transcendent principles of justice separable from its initial cultural expression and binding mainly on the individual. Most Muslims respect Islamic law. But the interpretation of sharia varies greatly from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia to Tanzania to Detroit.

Yet Gingrich insists: “Sharia in its natural form has principles and punishments totally abhorrent to the Western world.” With due respect to the speaker and his recent reading, what qualification does he have to identify sharia’s “natural form”? In the United States, public officials respect the conscience of citizens while protecting them from violence. The proper role of government is to aggressively fight terrorism, not to engage in theological judgments.

The governing implications of Gingrich’s views are uncharted. Would President Gingrich reaffirm his belief that the most radical form of Islamic law is the most authentic? Would he tell American Muslims that, to be good citizens, they should renounce sharia? Would he argue in his inaugural address, as he has argued before, that “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization”? No strategy would be more likely to produce resentment, alienation and radicalism.

And how would President Gingrich deal with predominantly Muslim nations if the war against terrorism were transformed into a struggle against sharia? Wouldn’t every Muslim friend and ally be discredited and undermined by having a relationship with the anti-sharia superpower? Wouldn’t Islamic radicals welcome the civilizational struggle that Gingrich offers? No strategy would be more likely to undermine the cause of the United States and the safety of its people.

Of course, none of this is possible. As president, Gingrich would be forced to repudiate his previous views out of strategic necessity. But those views demonstrate a disturbing tendency: the passionate embrace of shallow ideas.

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michaelgerson@washpost.com