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

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
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 reporter for Bloomberg Politics

"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.

Advertisement

"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."

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.)

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.