I was happy to see President Barack Obama continue his outreach to the world's Muslims during his Asia trip. It's important for Muslims overseas to hear that Americans are waging war against terrorists, not Muslims, even though some Americans have a hard time telling the difference.
A good example of such bad thinking occurred in the midterm elections. Oklahoma voters decided in a 70-percent landslide to amend their constitution to ban international law and Islamic Sharia law. Take that, Taliban, although I doubt that the terrorist movement will react to this measure with anything but laughter.
In a state whose Muslim population numbers only 15,000, the ballot measure is at best a solution in search of a problem. Even its author, Republican state Rep. Rex Duncan, acknowledged to reporters that the Sooner State has not had any cases of Sharia law and does not expect to see any soon, but "why wait until it's in the courts?"
Now it's in the courts anyway. Oklahoma federal district judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange granted a temporary restraining order to Muneer Awad, an Oklahoma Muslim who sees the measure as a threat to his rights. It sounds to me as though he has a good case. The boundaries of religious freedom are a never-ending argument in this country, but it is safe to say that the First Amendment frowns on laws that single out religions, whether for penalties or preferences.
Yet this case is nationally significant today because, as its backers have said, more than a dozen other states are preparing to place similar initiatives before voters in 2012. The notion that Sharia law is invading America has been boiling up in conservative circles for at least the past year. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential Republican presidential candidate, declared at the Values Voters summit in September, "We should have a federal law that says Sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States."
And, before Nevada Republican Sharron Angle lost her campaign for the Senate, she told an audience incorrectly that Sharia had been allowed to "take hold" in Dearborn, Mich., and Frankford, Texas, which turns out to have been annexed to Dallas in 1975. As for Dearborn, which has a large Arab and Muslim population, its Mayor Jack O'Reilly said Angle "doesn't know what she's talking about."
That's appropriate. Facts have had a lot less to do with the current dust-up over Sharia than fear -- a fear not so much of Muslim law as of Muslim terrorism -- which, as I mentioned, a lot of people seem to think is the same thing.
Frankly, if all I knew about Sharia law was the part that gets the most attention in the news -- the subjugation of women, cutting off hands for petty theft, stoning for adultery and other horrendous acts in its name -- I'd be angrily opposed to Sharia law, too. Instead we should be angry at the fanatical extremists. Judging Sharia by the Taliban's interpretations, for example, is like judging Christianity by the Christian Ugandan officials who want to punish gay sex with the death penalty. Every religion has its fanatics.
Gingrich, among others, cites debates going on in the United Kingdom about allowing Islamic courts to arbitrate deals and disputes over marriage, real estate and other business matters, in tandem with the conventional royal government. But the UK and the United States have long recognized the authority of rabbinic law courts, the beth din ("house of judgement"), to judge similar matters in Orthodox Jewish communities. In the United States, the religious courts' decisions can be appealed to conventional courts all the way up to the Supreme Court.
That makes Oklahoma's move not only unconstitutional in singling out a single religion's courts but also unnecessary. The Constitution still would have the final word. The new amendment's ban against international law in Oklahoma courts also could create havoc, some observers have pointed out, in conventional relations with Native American Indian tribal governments in a state that has the nation's second largest Indian population.
In short, the so-called threat of Sharia in America is a legal and political mirage. Even as a feel-good measure in today's post-Sept. 11 world, the anti-Sharia amendment and the hysteria that created it should only make us feel bad. We need to wage war on terrorists, not on Islam, even when terrorists commit horrible acts in its name.