Todd Akin and Paul Ryan are American Salafis

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Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.  His latest book, "Engaging the Muslim World," is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website, from where this article is cross-posted.

Rep. Todd Akin apparently believes that women who are victims of 'legitimate rape' can't get pregnant. Biology proves him wrong.

The troubles of Rep. Todd Akin, Republican candidate for the Senate in Missouri, derive from his absolute opposition to abortion, even in cases where a mother’s life is in danger or in cases of incest and rape.

The ‘personhood’ bill he co-sponsored with Paul Ryan would have had the effect of making all abortions for any reason illegal. That bill spoke of ‘forced rape,’ which Akin says is what he meant when he spoke of ‘legitimate rape.’

On the impermissibility of abortion in case of rape, ironically enough Akin’s position is the same as the leading authorities of Sunni Islam in Egypt. Yes, Akin is upholding ... shariah (or at least one strain of thought within shariah). But even fundamentalist Muslims would disagree with him about forbidding abortion where the mother’s health was at issue, and most Muslims are more open-minded about abortion and when life begins than he is.

The right wing of the Republican Party (increasingly all that exists of the Republican Party) has a general problem of starting with its platform and reasoning back from it to a premise from which it would follow, no matter how absurd and fantastical the premise.

So, the GOP knows it supports Big Oil. Since burning petroleum puts carbon dioxide in the air, which causes global climate change and potentially great harm, Republicans should rethink their partisanship for oil, coal and natural gas. Instead, they deny that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect and climate change.

Likewise, Akin started from a premise that a fertilized egg is a legal person, and that abortion is always forbidden. Presented with the conundrum of whether a woman should be made to bear the child of her rapist, he tried to deny that women can get pregnant from rape. Actually, on the order of 32,000 American women get pregnant that way every year. Akin’s position, and his reasoning, are common among Republican representatives and senators today.

Akin is the son of a clergyman, and is an engineer, and he has a divinity degree from an evangelical seminary in St. Louis. He wants to socially engineer us all, to and impose on us his invented tradition of Christianity (real, historical Christianity was diverse in its attitude toward abortion over the centuries; St. Augustine, e.g., allowed it because he believed that the embryo did not receive a soul until weeks into its development. Belief that there is no baby until the ‘quickening’ has been widespread.)

Many politicized evangelicals in the United States have led a bizarre charge against Muslim law (shariah) being recognized by the courts here.

They are shameless, however, in wanting to impose on all Americans the Christian version of shariah. If they don’t believe in abortion, why don’t they just not have one? Why are they busybodies, wanting to make laws for the rest of us?

Ironically, shariah has historically often been a flexible tradition. The shariah that the some evangelicals are so stridently warning us about looks more like St. Augustine than like Todd Akin.

Muslim authorities hold that the embryo does not receive a soul until 120 days into the pregnancy. Although Muslim clergymen have tended to consider all abortions a sin, they have often been willing to see it as an understandable sin for which there should be no punishment, as long as it takes place in the first 119 days. Almost all Muslim authorities allow abortion where the mother’s life is in danger. Some permit it in case of rape or incest.

The contemporary Shi’ite Muslim clerics often permit abortion under certain specific circumstances. Supreme Leader Ali Khameneih allows abortion where the fetus has an incurable and debilitating disease. Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei in Iran has even given a ruling that dire poverty might excuse an abortion.

On the other hand, it may be that the Catholic and evangelical positions on abortion being absolutely forbidden have had an effect on contemporary Muslim jurists. Egypt, for instance, prohibits abortion, and the prestigious al-Azhar seminary in Egypt (a thought leader for Sunni Muslims) in 2008 issued a ruling condemning abortion even in case of rape. (The ruling is advisory, not binding on the secular Egyptian judiciary). Strident Salafi interpretations of the law are also increasingly common, and a departure from broad-minded Sunni rationalism.

Todd Akin and Paul Ryan, in other words, hold the same position on rape and abortion as the leading shariah authority in Egypt.

The popular preacher Yusuf Qaradawi also opposes abortion under all circumstances, but he admits that other authorities disagree with him, and he entertains the possibility that rape may justify an exception to the prohibition.

Thus, on the issue of abortion, the same range of views exists as in Christianity. But the absolutism of Akin’s evangelical position, on the personhood of the fertilized egg and on the absolute prohibition of abortion under any circumstances, on pain of legal punishment, seems not to have a parallel in Muslim thought about shariah.

In other words, the bogey man with which some evangelicals are trying to scare Americans, of shariah, turns out to be a far more rich, elastic and forgiving tradition than their own sometimes is.

In the British legal tradition, precedent and custom are considered to have legal weight in deciding cases. It doesn’t really matter where the precedent occurred, if it is thought relevant. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court justices have often cited the decisions of courts abroad, including the Indian Supreme Court. India’s courts have repaid the compliment, being in the same British tradition.

So, actually American courts considering a divorce case between two Muslim spouses might well refer to Muslim law in making their judgment. The same is true for Christian and Jewish customs relevant to a dispute. The law is not religious in itself, but religion can come into it by virtue of having been incorporated into customary practice. The anti-shariah movement could end up undermining the minority rights of Catholics and Jews, as well.

There is substantially less likelihood (of course!) that American courts and legislatures will impose Muslim shariah on us all, however, than that Akin and his soul-mate, Paul Ryan, will find a way to put us in their straightjacket of Christian fundamentalist shariah.

And it turns out that given its humane traditions, the wide range of positions its jurists have taken, and the lack of centralized religious authority in the Sunni branch, at least, Islamic law is often more tolerant and supple than the fundamentalist Christian equivalent. And, at least it spares us the illogic and inhumanity of the personhood of the cytoblast. But the most hard line Muslim legal positions sometimes approximate those of Paul Ryan and Todd Akin. They are our Salafis.

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