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By W. Gardner Selby July 16, 2015

Chain email: Muslims tried to open nation's first Sharia court in Irving, Texas

Muslims tried to open the nation’s first Sharia court in a Texas city, a chain email says.

A Houston reader asked us about that.

Sharia law, the religious law of Islam, can apply to issues ranging from dietary restrictions to divorces to punishment for stealing and killing, the Dallas Morning News noted in a February 2015 news story.

In 2011, though, we found False a legislator’s claim that Michigan judges were using Sharia law in lieu of U.S. laws and the Constitution. And as of 2013, according to a Pew Research Center report issued that year, there were no Shariah courts in the United States, though "a number of Muslim imams," religious leaders, "offer voluntary dispute-resolution services to American Muslims based on principles of Islamic religious law," the report said.

Chain email: Muslims thwarted in Irving

In June 2015, the reader forwarded us the chain email, which said: "The group of Muslims who attempted to establish the first Islamic Sharia court inside the United States in the town of Irving, Texas just received a devastating blow thanks to the town’s mayor standing strong and not backing down." The mayor, Beth Van Duyne, this year led the Irving City Council to pass a resolution endorsing an ultimately unsuccessful Texas House proposal. House Bill 562, which cleared a House committee but didn’t make it to a floor vote, barred foreign courts or laws from superseding U.S. laws.

The chain email further said efforts by Van Duyne "to stop this abomination will echo throughout the country, setting precedent for other cities and towns where Muslims attempt to establish footholds. Share this if you support the mayor’s efforts to put a screeching halt to the formation of illegal Sharia courts in her Texas town."

Irving mayor says mosque identified as starting Sharia court

News stories and a commentary by Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram helped us catch up to a Feb. 6, 2015, Facebook post by Van Duyne in which she wrote: "Sharia Law Court was NOT approved or enacted by the City of Irving. Recently, there have been rumors suggesting that the City of Irving has somehow condoned, approved or enacted the implementation of a Sharia Law Court in our City. Let me be clear, neither the City of Irving, our elected officials or city staff have anything to do with the decision of the mosque that has been identified as starting a Sharia Court."

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We reached out to Van Duyne, who by email pointed out a Feb. 2, 2015, news report by CBS 11 News headlined: "North Texas Home to First Islamic Tribunal in U.S." The station’s story, reported from Irving, said four local religious judges, guided by Sharia law, "are offering up their services to handle cases involving divorce, business problems and other disputes among the community" though not other civil or criminal matters nor child support, custody battles or asset transfers, the story said. Also, the story said, its rulings are nonbinding. Moujahed Bakhach, described as one of the tribunal judges, said generally that state and federal laws would always take precedent.

In his Feb. 19, 2015, commentary, Kennedy did not repeat the first-in-the-land characterization. After describing local objections to a "dispute panel" offered at an Irving mosque as "Shariah-phobia," Kennedy said: "Imam Moujahed Bakhach of Fort Worth, two other area imams and a case manager from a Dallas law firm hear disputes for a $1,200 fee.

We asked Van Duyne if she thought it accurate to say a Sharia court opened in Irving. It’s accurate, she said, that "a tribunal has been formed in the greater DFW-area and they have indicated it functions in various locations such as Dallas, Richardson, Arlington and Irving. My understanding is they don’t operate in a single fixed location since the tribunal is essentially four men and they could be conducting their ‘court’ from an office, a mosque or elsewhere," Van Duyne emailed.

Islamic Tribunal website

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Van Duyne also emailed us screenshots of the website, which we then clicked to, spotting this undated message: "Over the past few days, some media speculation has led members of the local community to wonder if the Islamic Center of Irving is facilitating ‘Shariah Courts’ at the Mosque. The management of the Islamic Center of Irving categorically declares that no such court operates on the center’s premises." The message continues: "No other mosque in the area operates such courts. However, the Islamic Tribunal ...operates in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, independent of the mosques, to address a genuine need within our faith community for intra-community arbitration."

The message continued: "Similar religious tribunals have existed for decades in the American Jewish and American Christian faith communities to resolve disputes, most especially within families. These religious tribunals are optional arbitration vehicles that only conduct their work when requested to do so by both parties involved in a dispute, do not attempt to impose any belief system upon any individual and work in compliance with State of Texas and U.S. law under the United States Constitution."

A "mission" section of the website says the tribunal exists to satisfy the "need for a mediation and non-binding arbitration firm that adheres to Islamic principles in the Muslim community" in Dallas/Fort Worth, also indicating it was formed in part to focus on marital disputes.

The website also presents the tribunal’s "constitution;" its first article states the "objective of this Court is to resolve any dispute among Muslims residing in USA while complying with the federal laws of the United States and Texas state laws under the approval of the Texas Judicial system." Other articles indicate the tribunal is a Dallas-based nonprofit whose offices are: President: Imam Yusuf Ziya Kavakci, Ph.D., scholar in residence, Imam, Islamic Association of North Texas; Vice President: Imam Moujahed Bakhach, director of  Mediation Institute of North Texas; Treasurer: Imam Zia Sheikh, PhD, Imam, Islamic Center of Irving; and member, Dr. Taher Elbadawi, assistant lawyer in A&M Law Group.

On her Facebook page, Van Duyne pointed out the Feb. 23, 2015, news story in the Morning News stating the tribunal had been launched in Dallas in 2014 to settle civil disputes among the growing Muslim population. Organizers, the story said, said its panel of arbitrators issues "non-binding decisions on matters such as business disputes and religious divorces. They note its parallels with Jewish rabbinical courts and Catholic tribunals." The News story said the court uses a conference room in a northeast Dallas law office, where one of the judges works, with hearings there or in conference rooms at some of nearly 60 North Texas mosques. The judge who works in the Dallas office, Taher el-Badawi, told the newspaper the tribunal had settled about two dozen cases, mostly of divorcing couples. "Our community really needs an Islamic tribunal to solve problems," he said. "And we save money and save time for all the community."

We left phone messages with the tribunal and the Islamic Center of Irving and didn’t hear back.

A national expert

Concurrently, we reached the Pew center; spokesman Stefan Cornibert nudged us to contact Lee Ann Bambach, an expert on Sharia law quoted in the center’s 2013 report who wrote a dissertation titled "Faith-Based Arbitration by Muslims in an American Context."

Bambach, a Georgia lawyer, told us by phone she considers the Dallas-rooted Islamic Tribunal an alternative dispute resolution service--not a court working outside the bounds of U.S. law. "They’re not trying to establish anything that’s going to take jurisdiction away from the state or federal courts," Bambach said. Similarly, she said, Christians and orthodox Jews sometimes adopt dispute resolution processes. Broadly, Bambach said, there is nothing in the U.S. she’d call a Sharia court. "I’d call them dispute resolution services," she said.

Not many services like the Islamic Tribunal otherwise exist in the U.S., Bambach said by email, with most alternative dispute resolution done informally in mosque settings. "I am aware of no such tribunals/services that seek to enforce any aspect of sharia criminal law," Bambach said.

Our ruling

The chain email said Muslims "attempted to establish the first Islamic Sharia court inside the United States in the town of Irving, Texas."

Not so; news stories and the Islamic Tribunal website indicate a few Muslim individuals teamed up to offer Sharia-governed, non-binding mediation services in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including in Irving, with the declared intent of complying with state and federal laws. We spotted no evidence of residents trying to open a Sharia court with all the powers that word implies.

We judge this claim False.

FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Our Sources

Truth-O-Meter article, "State Rep. Leo Berman says judges Dearborn, Michigan, practice Shariah law," PolitiFact Texas, May 14, 2011

News story, "Islamic tribunal in Dallas draws criticism and clients," Dallas Morning News, Feb. 23, 2015

Report, "Applying God’s Law: Religious Courts and Mediation in the U.S.," Pew Research Center, April 8, 2013 (accessed July 10, 2015)

Document, fiscal note for House Bill 562, 2015 regular legislative session, Texas Legislature, Texas Legislative Council , April 20, 2015

Emails, Beth Van Duyne, Irving’s mayor, July 9-10, 2015

News story, "North Texas Home To First Islamic Tribunal In U.S.," CBS 11 News, Dallas-Fort Worth, Feb. 2, 2015

News commentary, "In Irving, it’s religious freedom against Shariah-phobia," Bud Kennedy, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Feb. 19, 2015

Emails, Stefan S. Cornibert, communications associate – Religion and Global Attitudes, Pew Research Center, July 10, 2015

Telephone interview and email, Lee Ann Bambach, Hague, New York, July 13 and July 16, 2015

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More by W. Gardner Selby

Chain email: Muslims tried to open nation's first Sharia court in Irving, Texas

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