Politico reports on something that should already be common knowledge to readers of this blog — that the phantom menace of sharia law has become a “consensus issue” among Republican presidential contenders:

As potential GOP candidates jockey to distinguish themselves heading into primary season, there seems to be at least one issue on which they widely agree: Sharia law is a continuing threat to the United States.

Invoking Sharia and casting it as a growing danger at odds with American principles has become a rallying cry for conservatives. It’s also quickly becoming an unlikely pet issue among 2012 presidential contenders: Potential candidates have almost unilaterally assailed the Islamic code, making it as much a staple of the campaign stump speech as economic reform, job creation and rising gas prices.

The idea that American Muslims will somehow replace the Constitution with Taliban-style sharia law is a ludicrous conspiracy theory, which is why it’s so bizarre that it’s even become a political issue. State legislatures across the country have proposed or passed sharia law bans, which are patently unconstitutional given the First Amendment’s protections against government interference with religious worship. The only context in which sharia comes into play in the American legal system is in matters of civil arbitration and contracts — and there’s a longstanding American precedent for allowing the faithful to address such matters through religious arbitration if they so choose, but such agreements aren’t allowed to preempt civil law. Indeed, there’s growing alarm among Orthodox Jewish communities that anti-sharia legislation could ultimately interfere with their freedom to resolve matters through religious arbitration.

Muslims represent a painfully small percentage of the American population. And not even the Christian right, despite all of its political influence, has never been able to realize its dream of eroding the separation of Church and state or stemming the tide of growing public approval for same-sex marriage. Pew estimates that the American Muslim population will comprise a whopping 6.2 million by 2030, less than two percent of the total population of the U.S. The idea that they will be able to impose their will on the rest of the country, even if they wanted to, is ridiculous.

Islam is like any other religion — interpretation of its principles shift according to its adherents. What’s remarkable is that, far from protecting Americans from extremism, sharia panic actually demonizes and alienates American Muslims who are an essential resource in the fight against terrorism.

The prospect of successful federal anti-sharia legislation seems unlikely, if only because the constitutional hurdles are so high. But sharia panic is a little like birtherism, in that it allows Republican presidential hopefuls to pander to the anti-Muslim elements of the conservative base without having to propose much in the way of actual policy results. The American Muslims Republicans are treating like domestic enemies are merely collateral damage.