New York Times reporter James McKinley Jr., who last garnered the Times Watch spotlight for cheering on the Democratic candidate for governor of Texas, returns on Monday with a dismissive story on a ballot measure in Oklahoma, a pre-emptive ban on implementation of Muslim shariah law in the state: “Oklahoma Surprise: Islam as an Election Issue -- Ballot Measure on Shariah Law Fueled a Political Clash.”
The thrust of McKinley’s Monday piece favored the opponents of the measure, displayed in two large photos that accompanied the story that led the paper’s National section: A photo of State Rep. Cory Williams, who narrowly won re-election after opposing the plan, and residents of a local Islamic Society in head scarves.
The Times also proved itself to be cozy with the controversial Muslim interest-group CAIR, the local branch of which successfully sued the state to block the measure from going into effect.
That detail begs a question the Times didn’t raise: If the amendment is that meaningless, what stirred CAIR to file a lawsuit? Left-wing city councils make pompous declarations against the U.S. military and on international affairs all the time (boycotting South Africa used to be popular) without stirring up liberal media ridicule.
McKinley’s sympathies were clear from the outset:
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.
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.
McKinley’s story was packed with hostile ideological labels like “archconservative.”
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.
Between the labeling, McKinley was obliged to quickly lay out the arguments in favor of heading off Shariah law:
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.
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.
McKinley raised a dubious anti-initiative argument without going deeper:
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.
Ace of Spades blogger Gabriel Malor took issue, pointing out that "the text of the amendment does no such thing." But the Times is more interested in refuting arguments from the other side rather than wrong ones raised by the side it favors.
McKinley concluded by passing the stenographer pad to CAIR:
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.”