Sharia questions: The conservative panic about Muslim laws in Oklahoma.

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April 4 2011 6:11 PM

Sharia, USA

The conservative panic about Muslim laws in Oklahoma.

Sally Kern. Click image to expand
Sally Kern

OKLAHOMA CITY— Sally Kern's office in the Oklahoma state house is busy, with more trinkets than a cheer coach's trophy room. Here's an award from Americans United for Life. Here's a photo of George W. Bush throwing out the first ball at the 2002 World Series. Here's Theodore Roosevelt, hand on his hip, standing in front of a globe.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"I've put that photo of Roosevelt there because of the inscription," says Kern. She reads it: "We can have no 50/50 allegiance in this country. Either a man is an American, and nothing else, or he is not an American at all."

That brings Kern to the topic of sharia law. In 2010, Oklahoma voters passed a ballot measure—the first of its kind—prohibiting any judge or court from making decisions based on the teachings of the Koran. It won in a 70-30 landslide, then was immediately bogged down in court on First Amendment grounds.

So it was left up to Kern, who represents the western part of Oklahoma City in the House of Representatives, to introduce new legislation which can ban sharia without tripping on the First Amendment. Last week her bill, HR 1552, made its way to the Senate. It bans "any law, rule, legal code or system" not rooted in the Constitution of Oklahoma or the United States. Kern, a former history teacher, says she has no problem whatsoever with Muslims moving to Oklahoma and that the bill would protect them, too.

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"When I see things that are happening that I think will weaken our American way of life, I don't like that," she says. "I don't have a problem with people coming over here—why wouldn't people want to come to America, the greatest nation in the world where you have the most opportunities and freedoms? Why wouldn't they want to come over here? But if they're going to come over here, let them become Americans. If they want to hold on to their own cultures, then why—and I hope I don't get in trouble here—why not live in their own countries?"

Kern could be speaking for a million Oklahoma voters, or she could be speaking for Herman Cain, the long-shot presidential candidate who recently told ThinkProgress that he was worried enough about sharia that he would not appoint Muslim judges. She wrote her legislation after consulting with legislators in other states and with the Center for Security Policy, Frank Gaffney's hawkish group that's been leading the charge against "creeping sharia." And some of the momentum for her bill comes from the work of Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese-born author who condemns "Islamofascism," and whose ACT! For America brought her to this state for three 2010 campaign speeches.

But Democrats in Oklahoma respond to this with utter contempt. They were battered in the 2010 elections, left with around one-third of the seats in the House and Senate. The anti-sharia ballot measure, they say, was key to that. Cory Williams is a Democrat who voted against sending the sharia measure to the ballot then survived the election by only 280 votes. He thinks Republicans have found a clever way to exploit the unpopularity of Barack Obama in this state as well as the fear that he finds secluded locations to bow toward Mecca five times a day. To make the point, Williams cues up one of the ads that was run against him last fall.

"What do we really know about Cory Williams?" whispers a narrator. "We know that Cory Williams voted to allow radical Muslim terrorists to be tried under sharia law, the law of Islam."

Williams laughs ruefully when the tape is over. "I'm lucky," he says, "because I grew up in the district, and I have a pretty highly educated constituency. So I was able to explain that, no, I didn't want terrorists to get away with terrorism."

That ad was pure politics, of course. But anti-sharia campaigners say the more realistic threat is the sort of thing that happened in New Jersey in 2010. A Moroccan woman, fed up with abuse from her husband, filed for a restraining order. Judge Joseph Charles denied it because, according to sharia, the husband was acting within his rights.

That decision was reversed by a higher court. ("Yeah, amazingly, the courts operate exactly how they're supposed to operate," says Williams.) Still, the case gave anti-sharia campaigners in Oklahoma a story to tell. Muneer Awad, the president of Oklahoma's branch of the Council on American-Islamic relations, says the New Jersey case fueled the campaign that defined the election.

"That one judge!" he says, exasperated. "I wish I knew that guy. He was totally wrong on the merits, but he gave Brigitte Gabriel and the rest of the people who came here this case to talk about."