Noreen Ahmad proudly calls herself an Oklahoma Muslim.
She loves her home state; it’s part of who she is. And until recently, she has never felt discriminated against by fellow Oklahomans.
“I wore a hijab all through college,” said Ahmad, who attended the University of Central Oklahoma in her hometown of Edmond and studied information technology. “I never felt I was stared upon or looked at strangely. People were open-minded. They asked me questions. They wanted to learn about my faith.”
That’s why Ahmad was shocked when she heard about a ballot initiative that would add an amendment to the Oklahoma constitution prohibiting courts from considering “Shariah” – Islamic law – when deciding cases.
“I felt it was a slap to my constitutional rights and my freedom of religion,” Ahmad told Church & State. “I had never had my Muslim beliefs questioned. It just made me realize how much people don’t understand Islam and that they are afraid of it.
“It never occurred to me that this would be a concern,” she said. “Islam says that you must abide by the law of the land that you live in. As an American Muslim, I have to obey American law. To be a good Muslim, I have to follow American law.”
The Oklahoma ballot initiative – known as State Question 755 – passed on Election Day with 70 percent of the vote. The so-called “Save Our State” amendment revises the constitution so that “courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia Law.”
Supporters of the measure claim it’s the only way to protect the state from a takeover by Islamic extremists. Critics and constitutional scholars, however, insist that the measure fans the flames of religious discrimination and adds to anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.
“Our Constitution already separates religion from government,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “This proposal had no legitimate purpose. Its only purpose was to create fear and get voters to the polls.”
Marc Stern, an attorney at the American Jewish Committee, told NPR the measure is unnecessary because there is no reason to believe fundamentalist Islamic law will be imposed on the United States.
“Just as the Catholic Church didn’t take over law when large numbers of Catholics [came] to the U.S., and Jewish law doesn’t govern Jewish citizens, Shariah law is not going to govern, except voluntarily, the rights and responsibilities of Muslim citizens of the United States,” Stern said.
But despite this logic, right-wing groups and politicians were able to convince voters that they need to “save” their state from Shariah law. Many of these leaders achieved this by using shrill and alarmist language. For example, Brigitte Gabriel, founder of “Act! For America,” claims “a huge pocket of terrorist organizations” operates out of Oklahoma.
“I know this because I work with members of the FBI who are in counter-terrorism and who are paying attention to what’s happening in Oklahoma,” she said. “What we are seeing right now, not only in Oklahoma, but nationwide [is] where there is a large concentration of Muslim population, [there are] more demands and more push for Shariah law.”
Critics say Gabriel’s concerns are absurd. Terrorists, if they actually are plotting in Oklahoma, are unlikely to cease operations because of a constitutional amendment. And with only 20,000 to 30,000 Muslims in Oklahoma – out of 3.7 million people – Islamic groups are most unlikely to seize political power.
Yet many state politicians backing the measure echoed the paranoid sentiments. House Joint Resolution 1056 – which mandated the ballot initiative – passed the House 82-10 and the Senate by 41-2.
State Rep. Rex Duncan (R-Sand Springs), the primary author of the measure, said “Oklahomans recognize that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles.” His proposal, he asserted, “is a pre-emptive strike to make sure that liberal judges” don’t ignore those principles and consider Shariah or international law in their decisions.
Duncan boasted that Oklahoma is the first state to pass such legislation and he hopes other states will follow.
That seems like a strong possibility. In recent months, Religious Right leaders have exploited fear of Islam to get their base to the polls, and right-wing politicians have warned about a dire threat of Shariah law taking over the United States.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, stirred up a group of Religious Right activists by calling for a federal anti-Shariah law in September.
“We should have a federal law that says under no circumstances in any jurisdiction in the United States will Shariah [law] be used in any court to apply to any judgment made about American law,” Gingrich said at the Values Voter Summit.
Gingrich received thunderous applause from the audience.
According to Muneer Awad, executive director of the Oklahoma Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), “Muslims are being targeted as political punching bags.
“For some organizations and some politicians, it behooves them that people are afraid of Islam,” Awad told Church & State. “Islamaphobia is politically popular now.”
Awad’s theory is supported by a variety of statements made by politicians during the 2010 mid-term elections.
In September, Sharron Angle, a U.S. Senate candidate in Nevada, alleged that Islamic law has already been implemented in some U.S. cities, naming Dearborn, Mich., and Frankford, Texas.
“I don’t know how that happened in the United States,” she said.
In fact, Frankford no longer exists as a governmental entity, having been annexed by Dallas in 1975, and Dearborn operates under ordinary American constitutional law.
Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly called Angle’s claim “an invention” and noted that his city has seven mosques and 60 Christian churches.
In a letter to the candidate, he wrote, “Muslims have been practicing their faith in our community for almost 90 years without incident or conflict.”
The Oklahoma bill’s author, Rep. Duncan, is known for his hostility to religious and racial minorities. In 2007, all legislators were offered a complimentary copy of the Quran. Duncan refused to accept it, claiming the Quran is violent and “most Oklahomans do not endorse the idea of killing innocent women and children in the name of ideology.” However, he happily took a free copy of the Bible distributed by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
The legislator has also allegedly targeted minority racial groups. In his recent campaign to become the district attorney for Osage and Pawnee counties, he was accused of attacking his opponent’s Native American identity. Duncan ran a push poll asking voters if they would be less likely to vote for his opponent because of his “Native ancestry.”
Since the ballot initiative passed, Awad has filed a lawsuit to stop it from going into effect. His complaint alleges that the Oklahoma measure would violate the First Amendment’s promise of church-state separation and religious liberty.
“A red flag should come up anytime government targets one religious community,” Awad said. “We felt deprived of equal standing in the community.”
Awad won a preliminary victory in Awad v. Ziriax on Nov. 8 when U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange granted a temporary restraining order blocking certification of the ballot measure.
According to Awad, the court should also recognize that the problems with the anti-Sharia amendment extend further than just religious discrimination. It also bans all international law from being considered by a court, too. International companies, he said, won’t invest in the state for fear the courts will no longer uphold international agreements.
Last year, the same Oklahoma legislators who are behind State Question 755 eagerly passed a bill ordering the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Americans United opposed the Commandments display bill, just as it opposed this year’s anti-Shariah ballot initiative. AU insists that government should neither support nor oppose any religious belief.
“The intent [of the measure is] to single out one particular religion’s teachings as being wrong,” Americans United stated in an action alert urging members to vote no on State Question 755. “Yet the Constitution cannot express preference for one religion or denigrate another.”
Even the state’s conservative-leaning newspaper, The Oklahoman, asked readers to vote “no” on the amendment, asserting that it had “no practical effect and needn’t be added to the Oklahoma Constitution.”
Awad said he is grateful that there are still many who have not fallen for the political rhetoric and scare tactics.
“A lot of people reached out to us and gave us support,” he said, mentioning that the Oklahoma Americans United Chapter was one of these groups. “Being less than one percent of the population here in Oklahoma, the fact that 30 percent voted against this measure says something. It’s not a case of Muslims versus non-Muslimsl”