Even as anti-Shariah legislation roils statehouses, including in Missouri, one Kansas City attorney has launched a new practice precisely in that field.
Ahsan Latif said that, like any good businessman, he saw a need and is now filling it.
“It’s a way of allowing Muslims to fulfill their faith commitment and also at the same time getting comfortable with lawyers and law,” Latif said.
Latif, an associate at MKL, is adding Shariah services to his practice precisely at a time when some state legislators are feverishly working at keeping it out of their borders.
The Missouri Senate on Wednesday voted to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of SB 267, the so-called “Civil Liberties Defense Act,” which would have voided any court arbitration, tribunal or administrative agency decisions that are based on foreign law, and which are “repugnant” and “inconsistent” with the state and U.S. constitutions.
The House, however, failed to muster the votes needed for an override.
The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, has insisted the bill is not anti-Shariah. In an email request to discuss the bill, referring to “Shariah” law, the Senator’s executive legislative assistant, Jessica Johnson, replied, “checked with the Senator, and he has no idea what you are talking about and has no knowledge of a Sharia law bill.” A subsequent request to discuss SB267 was met with: “I spoke with the Senator and he has no interest [in] talking with you about this.”
But other lawmakers didn’t hesitate to speak out on the Senate floor, including Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, who is Muslim, calling it “bigotry at its highest level.”
“A blind man can see that it is [bigotry],” Nasheed said. “That’s exactly what it’s about.”
At least seven states have introduced anti-Shariah legislation or voter initiatives, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana and Tennessee. Some of those laws have been thrown out, including in Oklahoma.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LeGrange ruled that a voter-passed amendment to that state’s constitution violated the freedom of religion provisions under the U.S. Constitution, writing, “It is abundantly clear that the primary purpose of the amendment was to specifically target and outlaw Sharia law.”
The amendment, called “Save Our State Amendment,” was passed in 2010 with 70 percent of voter support.
In 2011, the American Bar Association adopted a resolution that, in part, opposes state or federal laws that “impose blanket prohibitions on consideration or use by courts or arbitral tribunals of foreign or international law.” Additionally, the resolution opposes the imposition of blanket laws targeting a particular religion.
Few Missouri lawyers list themselves as focusing on Shariah law, but it’s a bit more common in other areas of the country with higher Muslim populations.
Despite the controversy, Latif downplayed any fear he or other firm members may have of any negative reaction about his new practice area.
“I’m not particularly worried about any backlash,” Latif said. “The way I look at it, the best possible thing I can do is go out there and represent myself and my religion in the best way possible with my clients and in the community.”
Latif, who is Muslim and grew up in Lexington, where his father practiced medicine, said he believes the call to ban Shariah law is grounded in fear of “other,” of something different than what many in the U.S. have grown up with and are familiar with.
“When these issues come up, the average person in America doesn’t have the context of understanding, and it becomes much more ‘out there’ than it is,” Latif said. “And it’s sad because it’s distracting and because it gets tied up in what people are doing overseas, and it becomes something ‘other’ or ‘dangerous,’ when, in reality, it’s a difference between cultural practices.”
Latif said his Shariah legal services, which for now will focus on estate planning, including trusts, are constructed within the context of U.S. and state laws.
Shariah lays out how those of Islamic faith should distribute their wealth after death, including a stipulation that up to one-third of all estates must be bequeathed to charity — oftentimes a mosque — but which also provides a means for distribution to non-Muslim family members and loved ones. The remaining two-thirds of the estate are distributed in strict accordance to Shariah law to Islamic family members.
The laws governing the distribution are so complex, Latif said, that he and other lawyers practicing Shariah estate-planning use computer programs with algorithms designed to sort it all out.
“It gets complicated because it depends on so many factors, but there are certain areas where we have leeway, including the development of certain kinds of trusts that are developed under scripture and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad,” Latif said.
Faizan Syed, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he was delighted to hear of Latif adding Shariah services to his practice.
“That’s very positive, and I’m happy that we’re seeing that in Kansas City,” Syed said. “You have to realize that the practice of Shariah in the sense of legality is always under the civil law affecting such areas as burials, estates, marriages, divorces, estate planning. And U.S. law has always allowed for multiple religions in civil law, and it’s good to see an attorney addressing that because it will protect clients and their religious beliefs.”
As for the death of SB267, Syed said CAIR is pleased to see it go down in defeat.
“We’re very happy that freedom of religion and the practice thereof is protected in Missouri,” Syed said.
And, in a sense, Syed agrees with the bill’s sponsor Nieves that SB267 was broader than just Shariah.
“Not only would it have affected Shariah, but also canon law and Jewish rabbinical law, anything that was quote, unquote ‘foreign law,’” Syed said. “We hope that now the Missouri Legislature can focus on issues that are of real consequence to citizens and make laws that tackle those issues instead of addressing a ‘fix’ for issues that don’t exist.”