Sharia, the Islamic code of behaviour and law, has become an electric term in the language of politics. A Republican candidate for the US Senate has claimed bizarrely that two American districts are already living under it. Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, reckons America needs a federal law to establish that sharia may not be recognised by any court. Such legislation would only be prudent, his supporters suggest, when Islamic law is trying to infiltrate every corner of American life. Elena Kagan, a new Supreme Court judge, has been accused of crypto-sharia tendencies because her alma mater, Harvard Law School, has an Islamic finance project.

The term is bandied about in Europe, too. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, recently felt it necessary to assure her fellow Christian Democrats that, whatever steps might be needed to help immigrants, “it’s the constitution that applies, not sharia.” From the other side, the word elicits knee-jerk protectiveness among Muslims. When 40% of Muslim Britons told a pollster they liked the idea of sharia being applied in parts of Britain, that was not a demand for Saudi-style beheading, but a gut defence of a faith they see as under threat.

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