Rule of law: Sharia panic and the us constitution in the house of representatives

Katherine Lemons, Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


In spring of 2011, Peter King (R-NY) convened a hearing titled ‘The Extent of Radicalization among American Muslims’ in the US House of Representatives. Democratic participants critiqued the hearings and contextualized the proceedings within the long history of institutionalized racism in the USA. They argued that the hearings were a threat to the Constitution itself, a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. Republican participants shared concerns about threats to the Constitution but suggested that the hearings were part of a strategy to combat this threat. Numerous Republican participants identified forms of Islamic law, or sharia law, as the primary threat to the integrity of the rule of law (ROL). Despite opposing positions, all actors agreed that the ‘ROL’ is that which will save the nation from threats posed from both outside and inside the nation and, as such, it is the ROL itself that must be protected. In this sense, the ‘ROL’ ensured by the Constitution inadvertently became the primary object of the hearings. In this essay, we bring analytical approaches from performance studies and anthropology to argue that the hearings impel a re-examination of the concept of ‘ROL’ itself. Rather than simply addressing the legislative effects of the hearings, we are interested in what they reveal about the performative and cultural dimensions of the law and the lawmaking process. While critics of the hearings derisively referred to them as ‘political theater’, we suggest that it is the nature of the King Hearings as staged public spectacle that imbue them with a politically performative power. We also identify the specific effects of sharia panic in contemporary US American political and legal discourse.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1048-1077
Number of pages30
JournalCultural Studies
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014


  • Discourse
  • Performance studies
  • Performative power
  • Public spectacle
  • Rule of law
  • Sharia law

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Social Sciences


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