Before 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested by police in Irving, Tex., after bringing in a homemade clock to school, the national spotlight shone on the Dallas suburb as its officials warned about Sharia courts.
It began with a February Facebook post by Mayor Beth Van Duyne responding to stories about a Muslim mediation panel comprised of arbitrators settling civil disputes using Sharia law in non-binding decisions, with reports that the panel was located in an Irving mosque. Van Duyne began referring to the tribunal as a “court” and warned that foreign law can’t be applied when it “violates public policy, statutory, or federal laws.”
“Sharia Law Court was NOT approved or enacted by the City of Irving,” she wrote, adding: “Our nation cannot be so overly sensitive in defending other cultures that we stop protecting our own. The American Constitution and our guaranteed rights reigns supreme in our nation and may that ever be the case.”
Van Duyne’s comments attracted national media attention. In March, she asked her city council to vote to endorse a Texas bill that forbids judges in family law cases from using foreign laws if they violate constitutional or state protections. Critics said the bill unfairly targeted Muslims. Irving’s mosque “categorically” denied hosting a court, stating that its imam acted as an arbitrator on a tribunal in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
“Similar religious tribunals have existed for decades in the American Jewish and American Christian faith communities to resolve disputes, most especially within families,” reads an Islamic Center of Irving statement. “These religious tribunals are optional arbitration vehicles that only conduct their work when requested to do so by both parties involved in a dispute, do not attempt to impose any belief system upon any individual and work in compliance with State of Texas and U.S. law under the United States Constitution.”
For some, the episode demonstrated the need for a tough-talking official to stand up for the U.S Constitution against dangerous, international influences. For others, Irving became a reminder of Islamphobia in post 9/11-America. One man started filming mosque traffic to show its effect on the community. Muslim leaders requested extra security around their mosque. Accusations of discrimination were met by officials insisting their actions had nothing to do with religion.
So it is, once again, for Irving, where a Muslim ninth-grader’s arrest has prompted widespread outrage. The city, some 15 miles from Dallas, has a small but growing Muslim population of thousands making up the city’s 232,000 residents. The main mosque, the Islamic Center of Irving, has been expanding at such a rate that rumor has it that plans for a new, smaller mosque are now in the works.
A lawyer representing Ahmed’s family said his family has “suffered discrimination” before. After the teen’s arrest, the police chief said the incident was not related to race. Van Duyne defended the police department and school district, writing on Facebook that her “first concern… is always the safety of our children and Irving citizens.”
“I do not fault the school or the police for looking into what they saw as a potential threat,” she wrote. “They have procedures to run when a possible threat or criminal act is discovered.”
Tensions surrounding the city’s Muslim community came to a head this year when the city council — including the mayor — backed the Texas House bill dubbed “anti-sharia” law, which prohibits judges from using foreign law in their rulings.
The bill doesn’t explicitly mention Islam, and Van Duyne had insisted it had nothing to do with religion. But as the Dallas Morning News reported, “The wording is largely identical to a bill filed several years ago, pitched then as a way to stop the influence of ‘large populations of Middle-Easterners.’ ”
In the aftermath of the debate, Irving mosque leaders said they received some“disturbing” e-mails and phone calls, according to the Dallas Morning News, and requested extra security from police. The chief called on officers to increase their presence.
Van Duyne has since characterized the reaction to her comments about Sharia law “baffling.”
“Most often the victims of unjust foreign law are women and from immigrant communities,” she wrote in an April column for the newspaper. “How can defending these newcomers to America be considered disrespectful or hateful?”
In any case, Van Duyne was criticized as using the debate to further her own political agenda, and it catapulted her profile among a segment of Americans worried about growing Muslim influence. She told former Fox News host Glenn Beck in February that Islamic leaders were “bypassing American courts” by mediating their own issues.
“Equal treatment under the law doesn’t seem to exist. And that’s my concern,” she said during the interview. “I think you need to put your foot down and say, ‘This is America.’ We have laws here already. If you want to consult, if you want to arbitrate, that is well within our law. I don’t have a problem with that.”
What she opposed, she said, was setting up “a separate court, setting up a separate law.”
The panel, made up of four judges, mediated disputes such as divorce or business problems within the Muslim community, and the results were non-binding, one tribunal judge told the Dallas CBS affiliate.
“In their mind, the misconception about what they see through the media is that Sharia means cut the head, chop the heads, cut the hands and we are not doing that,” tribunal judge Imam Moujahed Bakhach told the television station.
Sheikh, the imam, said Van Duyne’s “whole point was to rile up her supporters,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “The problem is we become the whipping boys.”