By Bathija, Sandhya
Church & State , Vol. 63, No. 11
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. …