In the past few weeks, areas of East London have seen the rise of a group called the “Muslim Patrol.” Consisting of young Islamic men, they have posted several Youtube videos which show them harassing people they believe are not adhering to Islamic law. This includes those who drink alcohol, women believed to be dressed immodestly, and perceived homosexuals. Five men have already been arrested in connection with the videos, and the incidents have been condemned in England and abroad.
Some might say that this kind of thing would be unacceptable in the United States. Yet in terms of religious enclaves enforcing their own moral prohibitions against certain social activities, namely drinking, we do the exact same thing here in America. These prohibitions are known as Blue Laws, and counties all across the country enforce them.
Blue Laws are statutes that generally concern the sale and consumption of alcohol. Most often they either restrict the hours one can purchase alcohol on Sundays or prohibit its sale entirely, and are a tribute to America’s puritanical Christian roots and our failed attempt at Prohibition.
Although Prohibition was repealed on a national level in 1933, the ban on alcohol remained in many areas on the state and county levels. Mississippi only did away with their statewide prohibition in 1966. To this day, nearly half of the counties in Mississippi ban the sale of liquor entirely, and dozens of other dry counties from Texas to Virginia do the same.
In addition to Blue Laws, it wasn’t until 2003 that Supreme Court’s decision Lawrence v. Texas struck down sodomy laws in the remaining fourteen states where they were still on the books. Though these laws were once nearly universal in the U.S., most states had taken the initiative to repeal them before 2003. Alaska decriminalized oral sex in 1971 and then anal sex in 1981. Arkansas repealed their sodomy laws in 1975, but reinstated the ban two years for same sex couples.
Moreover, these laws go even further than regulating booze and sodomy. In much of Massachusetts you can’t buy groceries on Thanksgiving and Christmas because grocery stores are forbidden by law from opening. Several states prohibit the sale of automobiles on Sundays. This includes, ironically, the state of Michigan. However, Michigan’s restriction extends only to counties with a population of less than 130,000. What possible use is there for such archaic and arbitrary laws?
One reason the Muslim Patrol is a big deal is because the British have historically been keener on their spirits than the Americans. An effective temperance movement never truly developed in the UK, whereas in America these rules have been institutionalized since the beginning. They are part of the foundational moral traditions of the country. Americans take these laws for granted every single day, and don’t even notice the irony when condemning the same acts in the United Kingdom.
I can fully understand British people being upset about this. I find it deeply troubling as well. But before Americans are so quick to criticize, it is important to remember the standards we as a people tolerate every day in the name of religious tradition.