Oklahoma’s Shariah Law Ban Creates Controversy
Oklahoma State Rep. Cory Williams is exasperated. He was one of only 12 state legislators to resist the political stampede to put before voters a referendum to prohibit state judges from considering Islamic Shariah or international law in their rulings.
He derided his colleagues' fervor as "irresponsible" and "pandering." Voters, Williams said, "think that their legislators are not screwing around and putting things on the ballot [just] to get a certain electorate out there. They think that if the legislators put it there, then there's an issue" that must be addressed, he told the Intelligence Report. "What they don't pay us to do is be political assholes."
Legal experts say banning Shariah law is superfluous; there is no mechanism by which any foreign criminal or civil code can trump U.S. laws. Business experts add that such a ban could hurt the image of domestic companies doing business overseas. Yet when Oklahoma voters got the chance to vote on State Question 755, the so-called "Save Our State Amendment," 70% approved it.
State Rep. Rex Duncan (left) says he pushed a legally meaningless ban on using Shariah law in Oklahoma because “it’s a war for survival of our country.”
Rep. Rex Duncan, who authored and co-sponsored the House joint resolution that later was presented to voters as S.Q. 755, said it was a "pre-emptive strike" that would stop "activist judges" from imposing the type of repressive justice found in the most oppressive Islamic regimes.
Duncan made national news with his proposal. In June, he told MSNBC's Contessa Brewer that Oklahoma voters "understand that this is a war for the survival of America. It's a cultural war, it's a social war, it's a war for the survival of our country."
Two days after the vote, Muneer Awad, a lawyer and executive director of Oklahoma's chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), filed a lawsuit alleging that the amendment violated his and other Muslims' constitutional rights. U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange issued a preliminary injunction on Nov. 29 to prevent the vote from being certified.
Could it Happen Here?
Shariah law is derived from the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. Like other systems of religious law – Jewish Halachic law, for instance – it establishes guidelines for major life events like marriage, birth and death, and outlines conduct that is forbidden and required. Interpretations of what the rules are and precisely how they are to be followed vary among different branches of Islam and among Muslims as individuals. It also varies among Muslim-majority countries, whose implementation of Shariah law ranges from nominal to strict. In countries like Saudi Arabia, where there is little or no separation of secular and religious authority, courts of law may mete out punishments according to Shariah law as interpreted by imams.
Awad's challenge to the Save Our State Amendment got little visible support from his fellow Oklahomans. Islamophobes, however, had a field day. Reposting an article titled "Taliban chops off man's hand for theft," JihadWatch.org's Robert Spencer asked, "Isn't it great that Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange has made Oklahoma safe for Sharia?"
That the punishment in question was meted out in an illegal court controlled by a banned branch of the Taliban operating in lawless northwest Pakistan clearly didn't matter to Spencer, a long-time Muslim-basher who co-heads Stop Islamization of America with blogger Pamela Geller of AtlasShrugs.com, a leader in condemning an Islamic center planned for lower Manhattan last year.
Unlike Spencer, legal scholars do distinguish between "law" as defined by rogue Taliban thugs and law as it is used American courtrooms — and they say comparisons like the one Spencer made are baloney.
"Oklahoma law, like the law of every other state in the country, prohibits people from chopping other peoples' hands off. An imam cannot chop a hand off. Anyone who did would be in violation of very serious criminal law and they would go to jail," said Paul Finkelman, President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany (N.Y.) Law School and Editor-in-Chief of Religion and American Law: An Encyclopedia.
Joseph Thai, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Oklahoma, agreed. "The reason that won't happen is the same reason it has never happened. We have never had anyone's hand cut off in Oklahoma because we have this background principle that states will not enforce foreign laws that are contrary to the law of the states. … It is not just stuff like cutting off hands and genital mutilation; Oklahoma will not enforce Texas law if it's contrary to Oklahoma law," he said. "We do not enforce foreign law that is contrary to state policy. We never have and we never will."
For Muslim Muneer Awad, who wants to be buried according to his religion’s custom, the Sharia law ban feels more like a war on him and other Muslims.
That doesn't mean certain Shariah principles would never find application in Oklahoma, which is home to an estimated 20,000-30,000 Muslims. Awad, for instance, specifies in his will that his body be prepared in accord with Islamic law as described in "Shahih Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 23, Number 345." Although there is no contradiction between this Islamic tradition and Oklahoma state law, the execution of wills is subject to court oversight — and if Oklahoma courts were forbidden to heed Shariah law, Awad argued in his petition for an injunction, his will could not be carried out, violating his constitutional right to freely exercise his religion.
Awad has been outspoken in denouncing the law as unconstitutional, bigoted, and prejudicial to Muslims. In return for his trouble, he's received an avalanche of hate mail — some of it from beyond Oklahoma.
"The Muslims are so fucking stupid that they don't realize southern people have our own brand of justice," wrote a man from Texas, who may or may not have realized the irony of his remark. "Again, muslim asshead(s), you are not welcome in The United States. Go fuck camels and whatever else you do like worshipping devils in some other country that will have you. Get out of America. You are not welcome here!!!"
Wrote another: "[W]e will work together in this country Jews and Gentiles to destroy those mosques built here, and cover them with the blood of swine, because you're [sic] religion is nothing more than a superstition."
And a third: "Take your Islamic laws, shove them up your ass and go back to where you came from. You lice infested bastards are not welcome and that goes, [sic] for that Black Bastard that sits in the White House."
Rex Duncan's 'Enemy'
Duncan, the resolution's enthusiastic author, told the media that he was inspired by a 2010 case in New Jersey family court, where a judge denied a Muslim woman's request for a restraining order against her husband, who was raping and beating her.
The New Jersey judge did not deny the woman's allegations of abuse, but he ruled that the husband's responsibility for his behavior was mitigated because his understanding of Shariah law informed him that he was entitled to have intercourse with his wife whenever he desired. Under New Jersey law, nonconsensual sex is rape even between a married couple.
A state appeals court pointedly overturned the decision, saying it clearly violated the legal principal that no foreign law can supplant U.S. law. But the mere fact that the clearly erroneous lower court ruling could happen in America at all was enough to convince Duncan that Oklahoma was in desperate need of protection – even though no problems regarding Shariah law had ever been reported in Oklahoma.
Duncan did not reply to repeated requests for interviews from the Intelligence Report. In the interview with MSNBC's Brewer, however, he said: "Oklahomans recognize that America was founded on Judeo-Christian values, and we're unapologetically grateful that God has blessed America and blessed Oklahoma. And State Question 755, the Save Our State Amendment, is just a simple effort to ensure that our courts are not used to undermine those founding principles and turn Oklahoma into something that our founding fathers and our great-grandparents wouldn't recognize."
"Frankly, it's the face of the enemy. It's the face of the enemy, and we need to call it what it is," he added. "Oklahomans are going to do that, and they're going show other states what it looks like to take a leadership role in saving their own future and the sanctity of their state court system."
Joseph Thai, the Oklahoma law professor, could hardly disagree more strongly. "The repudiation of the New Jersey case by the New Jersey court of appeals demonstrates that our legal system works, that we do not allow foreign law," he said. "Why in the absence of 755 has this never happened? It's because American courts will not enforce foreign laws that are contrary to public policy."
As it happens, at least one matter involving Shariah law has been adjudicated in Oklahoma state court. The outcome aligned precisely with what Finkelman and Thai predicted.
The judge, who requested anonymity to avoid any possible impact on Awad's lawsuit, told the Report what happened when a married Muslim couple brought a dispute over a premarital dowry agreement to the courtroom. Oklahoma law does not recognize dowry rights, so the judge ruled that the agreement was not enforceable under state law. Neither party appealed.
"I'm not going to enforce anything that is contrary to Oklahoma law," the judge explained.
Islamophobia on Steroids
S.Q. 755 did not materialize in a vacuum. Like fungus in a damp climate, its growth was encouraged by a recent mushrooming of Islamophobia across America. Impassioned and hate-filled reactions to last spring's announcement that a 13-story Muslim community center and mosque would be going up several blocks from New York City's Ground Zero shifted into violence within months.
Muslim-basher Robert Spencer, whose Jihad Watch website is quick to accuse groups of links to terrorism, suggested falsely that an Oklahoma judge was making the state a haven for Islamic religious law.
In May, a pipe bomb went off at a Florida mosque while 60 people were inside. In August, a knife-wielding passenger attacked his Muslim cab driver in New York City, and an arsonist damaged equipment at the site of a planned mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn. In September, it took a phone call from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to persuade Florida pastor Terry Jones to call off plans to lead "International Burn a Koran Day" on the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. (Undaunted, Jones has now designated March 20 as "International Judge a Koran Day." You can "burn it! Drown it! Shred it! Shoot it!" his church's website proclaimed.)
Anti-Muslim activists helped S.Q. 755's sponsors spread their message of intolerance and fear. Brigitte Gabriel's ACT! For America spent $45,000 to promote the amendment, targeting voters with radio ads and robo-calls voiced by former CIA Director James Woolsey. By fall, ACT chapters had begun to spring up across Oklahoma.
Williams said the effect of his vote against putting the "Save Our State" amendment on the ballot was "painful" during campaign season. His Republican challenger sent out postcards with pictures of shadowy, burqua-clad figures, claiming that Williams wanted Shariah to be the law of the land. Williams beat him anyway, but only by a slim margin — 280 votes out of 9,500 cast.
Likely fearing a similar backlash, the Oklahoma business community was silent — even though the amendment could directly affect its interests. "It is a regular part of our transactional practice to deal with the laws of other nations," said lawyer Louis Price of Oklahoma City's McAfee & Taft. "When you're dealing with a global economy, it's hard to say 'Yeah, you can do business with us, but only if you use our laws.'"
Asked if he expected anyone in business community to join Awad in his suit, Price said, "Individual businesses would tend not to pick fights on hypothetical matters. … [A]nd [the amendment] is still a hypothetical for our concerns."
Hypothetical or not, businesses did foresee the amendment could cause problems, and while they preferred not to "pick fights" themselves, they had little hesitation asking Awad and CAIR to fight on their behalf. "We had people in the business community calling and asking us to bring up the international law aspect in press conferences," Awad told the Report. "I think they hoped someone else would stand up because they didn't want to get muddied."
Voters in other states may soon have to decide where they stand on the question of forbidding their judges to consider to Shariah law. Lawmakers in at least six states – Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah – made campaign promises to introduce similar proposals. Legislators in Wyoming and Texas have already introduced anti-Shariah resolutions, and the conservative American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has pledged its support to states that need help writing and defending anti-Shariah laws. Jordan Sekulow, director of ACLJ international operations (his father, Jay, is the group's chief counsel), is soliciting signatures for an online petition to ban Shariah law in U.S. courts. According to The Christian Century, Sekulow is also "advising" Oklahoma State Sen. Anthony Sykes, who co-authored and co-sponsored the resolution that became S.Q. 755.
While the ACLJ pursues its multi-platform anti-Muslim agenda, Awad also is fighting the battle on more than one front. In the court of law, he is on the offense. But in the court of public opinion, he must strike a careful balance between making his case against the law and being sensitive to the plight of his co-religionists across the state.
When Awad first came to Oklahoma, he believed that drawing attention to people spouting anti-Muslim vitriol would shame them into silence. But just a few months in the state have shattered that illusion, he told the Intelligence Report. "Some people," he said, "can't be shamed."