When Civilizations Collide…Secular law vs. Religious "law"

As reported on “Religion Clause” today, the leading Sharia law “trustee” in Nigeria is claiming that the religious rights of a man are being violated when the State prosecuted him for marrying a 13 year old.

Now, according to AFP and ThisDay, the Registered Trustees of Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria has filed suit in the Federal High Court seeking a declaration that Yerima’s right to privacy and his right to practice his religion have been violated… The suit alleges that the Child Rights Act is unconstitutional because Muslim religious law permits Yerima to marry up to four wives with no restriction on age. The Sharia group’s lawyer says that a Muslim may “even marry a child in the womb of her mother.”

Polygamist Prisoners

So, a Government has laws that say marrying children is illegal, and a religion has “laws” saying child marriage (and polygamy, and fetal marriage (Fetogamy??)) are just fine.  How can such a situation play out?  Looking to Utah is instructive, in that its history shows a possible compromise.  At the same time, Islam is no 1860’s Mormonism.

When the Mormons asserted their religious freedom as a defense for polygamy, the national government fought back with threats serious enough to convince the isolated and localized Mormon community that it was in their long term best interests to have a “revelation” about polygamy.  According to this timeline, it took about 44 years (1852-1896) of legislation, arrests and dangling the carrot of Statehood in front of Utah to get them to forever renounce and outlaw polygamy.

So can any “State” bring such pressure to bear on Islam?  Dispersed worldwide, numbering over a billion, operating from a “cell” model rather than hierarchical church, and demanding that Sharia be elevated above secular law in every place they emigrate to, I don’t see how Islam can be reigned in with the tactics that wiped out polygamy (sort of ) in Utah.  Islam operates from a position of strength that the Mormons of the 19th century would have killed for.

Afghani Child Bride

Do we have the strength to stand up and defend our well earned civil rights and legal system?  What is the best tactic?  I certainly believe that nations must demand that their laws are pre-eminent over specific religious practices.  An emigree may not enter a country and insist that his religious practices be accepted, when those very practices have been outlawed in the country he is moving to. (Note: I’m willing to be a little softer on polygamy than on child marriage before the age of consent.)

The case of child brides is identical to the question of blasphemy death-sentence fatwas, or reduced rights of women in court or inheritance, or slavery.  If we do not stand and say, “NO!  These practices are not allowed here… we’ve already dealt with and settled those questions.” we will be willingly giving up what the crucible of 600 years of religious wars, enlightenment philosophy, revolution, and civilization building has earned us: civil rights, equal justice, secular systems of law, separation of Church and State, and respect for women as equal humans.


One thought on “When Civilizations Collide…Secular law vs. Religious "law"

  1. “(Note: I'm willing to be a little softer on polygamy…)”

    The government has no business regulating polygamy. Apologists for such regulation point to the fact that polygamy as practiced in many places is non-consensual. So what? In those cases, the actual crime being committed is slavery or kidnapping, and there are already valid laws against those. Slavery and kidnapping are illegal because they violate a citizen's freedom. Polygamy violates nobody's freedom — it is laws AGAINST consensual polygamy that violate a citizen's freedom.

    (Similarly, I once heard a journalist ask a police chief why prostitution was a crime. His response was that “some of those girls rob their customers.” How can any rational person spout insanity like this? You might as well insist that owning sample bottles be made illegal because some people use them to sell rocks of crack. Oh wait, we've already done that.)

    But what can we expect when government also feels it must sanction marriage between citizens? Marriage is the business of couples, families, and churches, not governments. If a government wishes to grant married people special legal rights in relation to each other (like custody of their children, the right to make health decisions when the partner is unable, or the responsibility for debts incurred by each other), let them sign a standard contract to that effect and have it adjudicated when necessary like any other contract.

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