As the country grapples with its worst economic downturn in decades and persistent unemployment, voters in Oklahoma next week will take up another issue — whether they should pass a constitutional amendment outlawing Sharia, or Islamic law.
Supporters of the initiative acknowledge that they do not know of a single case of Sharia being used in Oklahoma, which has only 15,000 Muslims.
"Oklahoma does not have that problem yet," said Republican state Rep. Rex Duncan, the author of the ballot measure, who says supporters in more than a dozen states are ready to place similar initiatives before voters in 2012. "But why wait until it's in the courts?"
Some conservative activists contend that the U.S. is at risk of falling under Sharia law. They point to Europe, with its larger Muslim population and various accommodations to the Islamic religious law.
In England, Muslims can enter special Sharia courts to decide divorce and custody cases if both parties agree. Criminal and other civil cases are still heard in secular courts.
In the U.S., those who warn of the dangers of Sharia can point to only a handful of cases that merely allude to the centuries-old, complex tangle of Muslim religious law. And in none of the cases cited has any U.S. court held that Sharia law is the law of the land here.
Islamic groups say that the Oklahoma initiative, which was placed on the ballot by the Legislature, is nothing more than an effort to stigmatize their religion in order to whip up votes. "There's no threat of Sharia law coming to Oklahoma and America, period," said Saad Mohammed of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. "It's just a scare tactic."
Until recently there was little campaigning over the measure, known as State Question 755. The only public poll conducted on the matter found it had the support of 49% of voters, with 24% opposed and 27% undecided. That was in July.
Last week a group called Act! for America, which says it exists to fight radical Islam, began airing radio ads and making automated calls to Oklahoma voters, urging approval of the amendment.
"The threat at this point is not that a country in Europe or the U.S. will formally adopt Sharia law, but that Sharia law will be accommodated alongside Western law," Guy Rodgers, the group's executive director, said via e-mail.
Backers of the amendment have cited only three cases that they contend show the threat of Sharia law. In each case, though, the courts gave no special dispensation for Sharia law. The activists say the judges erred by treating Muslims as they would other religious groups because Islamic law does not give women the same rights as men.
In the first case, a Maryland court upheld a custody order from a Pakistani court that was decided under Islamic law. Judges in the U.S. are required by federal law to uphold foreign custody orders if they comply with American legal values, but Rodgers argued that no Islamic court could ever meet this criteria.
In the second case, a Texas court allowed a couple to mediate a property dispute with a private arbitrator. That arbitration was conducted under Islamic law.
It is not unheard of to have religious law dictate private arbitrations in the United States — some observant Jews arbitrate disputes in a rabbinical court — but Rodgers contended that Muslims should be treated differently because their legal system is inherently flawed.
In the third case, a New Jersey judge ruled that a Muslim man could not be guilty of raping his wife because, due to his religion, he believed that a woman is required to have sex with her husband. An appellate court swiftly overturned the ruling, noting that it conflicted with long-established 1st Amendment jurisprudence that holds that religion does not excuse criminal conduct. The appellate court noted that the same rationale was used, erroneously, to justify polygamous Mormon marriages in the 19th century.
Duncan, an attorney, said that his amendment did not target Muslims. Instead, he said, it singles out "activist judges.... That's all I'm picking on."
The measure also would ban judges from relying on foreign laws in any way, a reaction to a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that cited other countries' legal norms in outlawing the execution of minors.
"When you have a justice on the United States Supreme Court who has stated publicly that the U.S. Supreme Court ought to be able to look to the laws of other countries, it isn't a stretch to think that some lower court state judge, be it in New Jersey or some other state, would come to the same conclusion," Duncan said.
Mohammed, of the Islamic Society, said that he feared that the measure could lead to politicians in other states trying to cash in on bashing Sharia law and Islam. "This garbage could really make things bad for Muslims," he said.
On the other hand, he added, since there is no Sharia in Oklahoma, the amendment is also largely harmless. "I think so little of it," Mohammed said. "Whether it passes or not, I don't think it's going to affect anyone."