By Katie Davern
The Irving City Council passed a resolution to support a Texas House bill that prohibits the use of foreign law in court. Many Muslims in Irving believe that the proposed law discriminates against them. In the following weeks, there has been much debate — and apparent confusion — surrounding the bill and the city council’s resolution, which passed with a vote of 5-4 on March 19.
The bill, nicknamed “American Law in American Courts,” addresses the use of foreign law in family cases in American courts. Proposed by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), the bill reads that it is “relating to the application of foreign laws and foreign forum selection in a proceeding involving marriage, a suit for dissolution of a marriage, or a suit affecting the parent-child relationship in this state.”
Some believe that the bill is targeted particularly at the Islamic Tribunal operating in the Irving, which exists to resolve civil disputes and family issues under Shariah law, or Islamic law. Many Muslims say that it remains explicitly under compliance with state and federal law.
Several hundred members of the Irving mosque came to express their concerns and protest the bill when the resolution was voted on at the city council meeting on March 19. Zia Sheik, an imam at the Islamic Center in Irving who helped co-found the tribunal, declined to be interviewed, but stated in an email that his concern is that “the history of the bill is based on Anti-Islamic hysteria.”
City Councilman Dennis Webb, who cast one of the four dissenting votes, said he feels that the bill is targeted at the Muslim community.
“Fear of… Shariah law is a real fear,” he said. “This is not geared towards Christians or Jews.”
Webb emphasized that the reason he and the other council members voted against the resolution was because they felt that it should not have been on the council’s agenda in the first place.
“From a legal standpoint, it’s useless,” he explained.
Since it is merely a symbolic gesture of support to the state legislative — and the state capitol will have the final say — Webb says the resolution has created unnecessary controversy.
“The only thing we’re bringing in for the city [with it] is divisiveness,” Webb stated. “Why divide our city?”
Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, however, said that the issue at stake is one of basic rights.
“Anybody who reads the bill understands that the only thing we’re protecting is basic fundamental rights provided by Texas state statutes and the Constitution, which anybody living in America should be in support [of],” she stated. “In issues of child custody, and divorce, and division of marital assets, domestic abuse, we will not look at foreign law as having a higher importance in the discussion than local, state, or Constitutional law… So you’re not going to have the precedent that foreign law would take the place of a state or Constitution issue if you’re violating rights.”
Van Duyne also pointed out that the bill makes no specific mention of Shariah, Islam or religion in general. She added that she sees it as primarily a women’s rights issue.
“Because most often in foreign law it is a woman who is going to be discriminated against,” she explained. “It is a woman who’s going to get the lower end of the totem pole in negotiations on child custody, on divorce, and on division of marital assets. I’m supporting women’s rights to equal treatment under the law… and for that I have been labeled as hateful and bigoted.”
In fact, Van Duyne said that much of the local media coverage has largely misrepresented the bill and the debate surrounding it, including the back story.
According to Van Duyne, three weeks prior to the city council vote, members from the Islamic Center in Irving met with her and other officials to request that she send out a clarification on the Islamic Tribunal, since they said they felt that there was a lot of negative reaction to it — including the misunderstanding that they were enforcing Shariah law and not following state and federal laws.
“I said if you want to send out something that clarifies it feel free; but you don’t want the mayor to define what your tribunal is and is not. I can only talk and speak about the relationship it has with the city,” she said.
Van Duyne said that State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving) then proposed that if people did not understand what the Islamic tribunal was doing, the Muslim community could support the “American law in American Courts” bill to clarify the tribunal’s position publicly.
“We could all stand together and say everyone is following the laws of the Constitution, no fundamental rights are being abused or violated,” she said of the opportunity. Rinaldi added that if there was anything in particular the Muslim leaders did not like about it, the state representatives could consider editing it.
According to Van Duyne, she and other council members waited three weeks but never heard anything back from Sheik and or other Irving Muslims. The night before the vote, they received a barrage of emails in protest, and the night of the vote, the several hundred members of the Islamic community showed up to protest at the meeting.
“It never had to be anything negative,” she stated. “If the mosque was not supportive of it, the only reason why it got picked up by any headlines is because they came to protest it. We could have gotten emails from it, they could just not have supported it. The only reason why it made headlines was because they came down to protest a bill that supported basic fundamental rights.”
The Irving Islamic Center declined to comment on this, as it is currently holding a “media blackout.”
Dr. Christopher Wolfe, University of Dallas professor of Constitutional Law, weighed in on the issue.
“If you do something that is contrary to American law on the ground that foreign law authorizes it… that’s going to be a problem,” Wolfe said.
While he thinks the Muslim community does not intend to act contrary to American law, he said he sees why people might be concerned, and he suggested that the local Muslim community may need to clarify its stance on this issue.
“If they say that they’re adopting Shariah law, it’s not that hard to understand why some people might wonder or be concerned about it,” he said. “And if the Muslims are right, then the law’s not going to have an impact on them. And if they’re complaining that the law is directed against them, the fact of the matter is that there are some Muslims in the world who do engage in honor killings. I guess the concern is we don’t know entirely what they mean when they say they’re using Shariah law.”