March 29, 2011— -- Republican presidential hopefuls, eager to shore up support with primary voters, have unleashed a series of rhetorical attacks against Islamic law, or Sharia, in what is widely seen as an attempt to burnish their conservative credentials.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty says his decision to shut down a state-sponsored mortgage program designed to appeal to devout Muslims -- who are forbidden by Sharia law to collect or pay interest on loans -- demonstrates his commitment to rooting out Islamic law.
"As soon as Gov. Pawlenty became aware of the issue, he personally ordered it shut it down," Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant said of the program in a statement. "Fortunately, only about three people actually used the program before it was terminated at the governor's direction."
Herman Cain, another likely GOP presidential contender, said over the weekend that he would not appoint a Muslim to his administration or the federal courts because he believes all Muslims "force their Sharia law onto the rest of us."
"There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government," Cain, founder and former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, told ThinkProgress. "It does not belong in our government."
Former Pennsylvannia Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both presumed Republican contenders, have also taken stands on Sharia, insisting Islamic law is incompatible with U.S. law and that it must be banned from recognition in courts across the country.
Sharia governs many aspects of Islamic private life, and influences legal codes in a number of predominantly Muslim countries.
Some American businesses offer Sharia friendly services to cater to Muslim clientele, and judges in some state courts are occasionally asked to consider an individual's Sharia observance when handling probate or family matters.
Any Islamic influence in the American marketplace or legal system, however, makes some people wary, and it's a dynamic the Republican candidates may be trying to tap into with their rhetoric, experts say.
Roughly half of all Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam, according to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, and 31 percent think mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims.
The rhetoric "may fire up a few hardcore conservatives who are, I think, generally misinformed about Islamic law or Sharia law or Muslims in general," said Abdulwahid Qalinle, director of the Islamic Law and Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota Law School.
"But after the primaries, when the Republican candidate comes to mainstream voters, I think they will have to change the tactic," he said.
Pawlenty Disavows Islam-Friendly Mortgage Program
In 2004, faced with lagging minority homeownership rates, then-Gov. Pawlenty launched an initiative to "expand culturally-sensitive mortgage products and underwriting processes" to growing numbers of prospective buyers, including observant Muslims who cannot pay for or collect interest under Sharia Law.
The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency spent $8 million developing and marketing Sharia-compliant mortgages -- special home loans that don't charge interest but instead have higher up-front monthly payments to account for what the bank would have otherwise earned.
The program abruptly ended one year later and only processed three home loans.
"There was a lot of interest, but many of the borrowers weren't credit ready," Megan Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, said in a statement explaining why the program came to an end.
"In conversations with the governor's office at the same time that the program wasn't being very successful, we did close the pilot program down and shift the funds to other loan programs."
But Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant suggested it was a concern over Sharia that led to its termination.
"The United States should be governed by the U.S. Constitution, not religious laws," Conant said of Pawlenty's objection.
Qalinle said Pawlenty's rationale for canceling the program is still unclear, since the Sharia friendly mortgages were neither legally mandated nor the only option available for home buyers. Conant did not offer further clarification.
"These Sharia-compliant mortgages are personal decisions by people who want take out a loan, but on their preferred specifications," said Qalinle.
"If a business wants to model a product to suit a particular customer, according to their wishes, it's a business decision," he said. "It's not as if Sharia is creeping into the American financial system or creeping into the American legal system, as is being portrayed now by many conservatives, especially those running for the presidency."