6 juin 2023

A U.S. clash over Islamic law

On IHT and NYT : "OKLAHOMA CITY — Cory Williams, a Democratic state representative from Stillwater, expected his opponent in the recent election to label him a free-spending liberal allied with President Obama.

Residents at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City last week. A lawsuit has stalled the ballot initiative.

He did not foresee that he would be accused of trying to subject Oklahomans to Islamic law.

Mr. Williams was one of 10 Democrats who voted against putting a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that would forbid state judges from considering international or Islamic law in deciding cases. He considered the idea unnecessary, since the First Amendment already bans state-imposed religion.

His Republican challenger sent out mailers showing him next to a shadowy figure in an Arab headdress. On the other side, the flier said Mr. Williams wanted to allow “Islamic ‘Shariah’ law to be used by Oklahoma courts” and suggested that he was part of “an international movement, supported by militant Muslims and liberals,” to establish Islamic law throughout the world.

“At the end of the day, it was just fearmongering,” Mr. Williams said.

He won by 280 votes, but many of his fellow Democrats failed to hold their seats. The amendment passed with 70 percent of the vote and helped drive record turnout in Republican strongholds. For the first time in the state, Republicans will now control the governor’s office and have veto-proof majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Other states where Republicans seized control of all reins of government in this election are Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

In Oklahoma, many conservative Democrats from rural areas lost, sounding a death knell for the state’s famous Blue Dogs, who have wielded power since the 1930s, pollsters and some Democrats say.

Politicians on all sides here predict that a raft of conservative bills that had been vetoed by Gov. Brad Henry, a moderate Democrat, will sail through next year, along with a few new ones.

The Republican governor-elect, Mary Fallin, a former member of Congress, is not only the first woman to be elected to the office, but also an archconservative allied with right-wing Republican lawmakers who call themselves the Liberty Caucus.

Voters also passed ballot initiatives on hot conservative issues, measures that had had little chance of becoming law under Mr. Henry.

Those initiatives show the extent of the conservative triumph here and how the anxiety among some voters about illegal immigrants and Muslims has become a potent political weapon.

For instance, voters overwhelmingly approved measures making English the state’s official language and requiring picture identification at the polls. Democrats maintain that both measures make it harder for Hispanic immigrants to vote or go to school, and they had succeeded in stopping them in the past.

But nowhere was the culture clash more stark than on the amendment regarding Shariah law, which put Democrats of a secular bent at odds with the conservative Christians who make up the backbone of the Republican Party.

Supporters of the amendment acknowledge that there is no evidence Islamic law had ever been brought up as a defense in the state courts. But they point to a recent case in New Jersey in which a judge had considered Shariah law in denying a restraining order to a Moroccan woman who said her former husband had raped her while they were married. The decision was overturned.

They also note that Shariah courts have been set up in England, where they have the power under a 1996 law to act as arbitration tribunals in Muslim civil disputes, provided all parties agree to abide by the ruling.

“This is a pre-emptive strike,” said the bill’s main author, State Representative Rex Duncan, a Republican from Sand Springs.

Before the vote, Mr. Duncan described the Shariah tribunals in England as “a cancer” and predicted that Muslims would come to America to take away “liberties and freedom from our children.” In an interview on MSNBC, he said: “This is a war for the survival of America. It’s a cultural war.” (In 2007, Mr. Duncan rejected a gift of a Koran from a council Mr. Henry created, saying, “Most Oklahomans do not endorse the idea of killing innocent women and children in the name of ideology.”)

Mr. Duncan, who had to step down because of term limits, won a close race for district attorney in Osage and Pawnee Counties. His sponsorship of the amendment helped him win there, local pollsters and politicians say. Across the state, the ballot initiative pulled conservatives to the polls.

“It was inflammatory, and it got people to turn out,” said State Representative Wallace Collins, a Democrat from Norman who lost a close race. “It worked for them.”

The day after the election, Muneer Awad, executive director of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations, filed a lawsuit. Mr. Awad argued that the amendment violated the freedom of religion clause of the United States Constitution, because it singled out Shariah law and Islam for special treatment rather than banning consideration of all religious codes. That amounts to state disapproval of Islam, he argued.

Last Monday, Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange of Federal District Court agreed that Mr. Awad’s complaint had merit, finding that the amendment’s “primary purpose inhibits religion.” She temporarily halted the certification of the election results and scheduled a hearing for next week.

Outside the courthouse, Mr. Duncan said the restraining order “thwarts the will of the people.” He said the amendment was never intended as an attack on Muslims, but as an effort to prevent what he called “activist judges” from using Islamic law in deciding cases.

Law professors have begun to raise questions about the unintended consequences of the amendment. Because it also “forbids courts from using or considering international law,” it could complicate contractual arrangements between Oklahoma companies and those with headquarters abroad. The amendment might also prevent judges from referring to the Ten Commandments or exploring English common law in their decisions.

“You throw a series of ambiguous ill-conceived words into the State Constitution and you don’t know what will happen,” said Harry F. Tepker Jr., a law professor at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s a mess.”

Ms. Fallin, who has strong support from business, has begun to back away from the amendment, even though she supported it. “It’s something that she will have to meet with the attorney general on and look at the legal specifics,” said Alex Weintz, a spokesman.

Muslim leaders in Oklahoma said the amendment felt like a slap in the face. They worry that marriages, wills, divorces and contracts — often drawn up between parties under Islamic principles then submitted to a court for approval — will no longer be valid. Jews and Roman Catholics often follow the same procedure in civil matters.

But many Muslims said they were more worried about the anti-Muslim mood that fueled the amendment’s passage. The vote here follows the controversy over a Christian pastor’s aborted plan to burn Korans in Florida and the opposition to an Islamic community center near ground zero in Manhattan.

Large mosques in Oklahoma City and Tulsa have been flooded with hateful e-mail since the suit was filed, including a video of a man destroying a mosque, Muslim leaders said.

“Islamophobia is really popular,” said Mr. Awad, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “With fear and hate, you really rally up a lot of supporters.”

The politicians backing the amendment, however, deny the accusations of fearmongering.

“America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles — that’s the basis of our laws, and people try to deny it,” said State Representative Mike Reynolds, a Republican who was an author of the bill. “I believe there is an awakening of people concerned about Christian values in our nation, and they are starting to express themselves.”

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