The conservative panic about Muslim laws in Oklahoma.
Awad came to Oklahoma from Georgia in 2010; he saw the sponsor of the anti-sharia ballot measure on TV, and decided that Oklahoma, with somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Muslims, was going to be a battleground for civil rights. He works mostly solo in an office inside a yellow geodesic dome. ("Before I took the job, I saw that and said, 'Wow, you guys work out of a mosque?' ")
Awad says that even though the Oklahoma law is tied up in court, it has been successful for opponents of sharia law. "They definitely got the word out there," he said. "Every time you see an anti-foreign, anti-sharia law in another state, they all come back to Oklahoma, because they know voters supported it. And the legal challenge now gives people the framework for how to draft a similar bill and avoid the problems they had in court. It was almost like a test run, and on top of that, a discourse was created—sharia has been defined for many people as this ugly thing. It's associated with marital rape, women's abuse, child abuse—these horrible, distorted things."
Awad's argument is the same as the Democrats' argument: Those horrible things are already illegal, and there's no point codifying that again. David Yerushalmi, an attorney who does some work for the Center for Security Policy, says there is a point. He's drafted model legislation called American Laws for American Courts. At four paragraphs long, it doesn't mention sharia, but it bans judges from using foreign law. Kern's legislation is copied word-for-word from that model, as she acknowledges. (She has edited out a short section about contracts, arguing that the change makes her legislation even less vulnerable to legal challenges.)
"Has sharia come to America yet?" asks Yerushalmi. "Not institutionally. That's why we have a Constitution, thank god. But how many people have to suffer before we have to pass a prophylactic law? I happen to be a guy who's strongly in favor of civil rights, and this is good for civil rights."*
Again: Democrats don't buy it. They just don't see the threat. Al McAffrey, the first openly gay member of the Oklahoma legislature, is not won over at all by the argument that gays have the most to lose from sharia law because in some sharia systems, being gay in punishable by death. The whole exercise, he says, is politics.
"It's good for fundraising," says McAffrey. "I say the words 'Sally Kern' and I can raise a couple of hundred bucks."
If this is so unserious, why are national politicians talking about it? Why is, say, Newt Gingrich telling audiences that Islamic law is coming? "It's a fear deal," shrugs McAffrey. "Newt Gingrich—I don't even think he knows what day it is. He's just talking."
What does McAffrey say to constituents who do worry about sharia?
"I ask them what made them worry," he says. He leans in. "What made you worry about it? Why are you afraid of it? What are you listening to, that made you afraid of this?"
The Democrats are talking past the Republicans. Kern, for example, is unmoved by the idea that the people who want sharia banned are uneducated. "That's insulting to 70 percent of the people of Oklahoma," she says. It's of a piece with all the criticism she gets for introducing social conservative legislation and getting accused of distracting from the real work Republicans need to do.
"A lot of our citizens understand what Scripture says," she says. "'Unless the Lord build a house, they that labor, labor in vain.' The Scripture teaches that the Lord honor the nation that honors him. I think it boils down to this: If we take care of the morality, God will take care of the economy. I think that's a principle that a lot of people in the great state of Oklahoma live by."
Correction, April 5, 2011: This article originally misquoted Yerushalmi as saying, "But wow many people have to suffer before we have to pass a prophylactic law?" (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Sally Kern courtesy © 2011 Sally Kern. All rights reserved.