Welcome to the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights Interview series, a regular examination of the court cases that shape and affect our lives.
Election Day 2010 saw an unusual question on the ballot in the state of Oklahoma: officials proposed that the state forbid its judges from considering international and specifically Islamic law when deciding cases. While seventy percent of the state voted in favor of the measure, it was promptly challenged in federal court.
To learn more about this case, we spoke with Muneer Awad, Executive Director of CAIR-Oklahoma, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
PERRY: Oklahoma voters recently went to the polls to approve an amendment to the state constitution. What was the amendment about?
AWAD: The amendment was quite frankly about the exploitation of voter fears with respect to Islam. The State Question inappropriately titled the “Save Our State Amendment” and the politicians who authored it rode the wave of anti-Muslim sentiments that were prevalent in the United States at that time as they are today. Those politicians went on stump speech after stump speech across the state, they warned people about the creeping through of Sharia, they warned people about an Islamic takeover of our courts, a religious doctrine that was inherently violent and in opposition to our principles, and ultimately they sort of built the framework that Islam was a threat to Oklahoma’s Judeo-Christian values. And they were asking voters to vote for this amendment in order to protect those values.
It’s important to be mindful that Sharia, even though it may bring up many negative sort of images in people’s heads, is not seen as something negative or contradicting or in opposition to the United States for American Muslims. And this amendment actually defines Sharia as Islamic law as derived from the Qur’an and the prophetic teachings of Mohammed, which happen to be the basis of Islam. So this message was based on fear-mongering, it was based on misinformation, but unfortunately it resonated with the voters and the author of this amendment, he rode this wave of popularity to the polls where he was an election for district attorney.
PERRY: What effect would this amendment have?
AWAD: What it does directly is it forbids Oklahoma state courts from considering Islamic law and considering international law. The first, the most obvious effect is that it’s a violation of the First Amendment establishment clause. What this does is it’s officially the Oklahoma state disapproval of the Islamic faith and of all Muslim citizens in the state. Islam will be the only faith singled out in this state’s constitution as being so uniquely dangerous to the state of Oklahoma that we need an amendment to save our state from it. That’s exactly what it says. In effect it will stigmatize, it will marginalize the Muslim community, and it will strip them of their rights to have, of their right to equal standing in the political community. Another effect is the violation of the free exercise clause, Muslims will be denied the exact same rights that people of other faiths have in Oklahoma courtrooms, and for no reason other than the faith that they choose to practice. In my case specifically, for instance, I have a will that’s written in accordance to my faith, because that will would need to be probated in Oklahoma state court, that will would be invalid, not because it asks to do something that’s illegal or against public policy but it would be invalid specifically because it cites my faith. If someone had a will written in accordance to Catholic law, or to Jewish law, that ask for the exact same thing that my will asks for, that will would be valid while mine is invalid. So we have a problem here where identical wills that cite different faiths will be treated differently, only because of the faith that’s cited. And there are a number of other instances, not only wills, there are Muslims that have Islamic marriages, there are Muslims who enter into Islamic finance agreements, or finance agreements that are Islamically compliant. All these agreements would be invalid in Oklahoma state courts.
And then aside from Islam there are other issues with respect to international law. International actually happens to be the more troubling aspect of this amendment with respect to the greater state of Oklahoma, and it’s an entirely different debate. Not only are we talking about marriages that may take place overseas, where now you have a spouse that would be unable to prove their status as a married person in order to receive benefits that he or she may be entitled to as a married person. Then you have issues of international adoptions, there are other international aspects that…and then probably the most troubling, especially at this point in America’s history, is that the amendment basically will invalidate all international agreements. In the zeal to bash Islam and create this sort of idea of American exceptionalism and isolation, these politicians have put out entire business community at risk with the thousands of international companies that have operations in the state of Oklahoma, and the thousands of Oklahoma companies that have international arrangements with companies outside of Oklahoma. All these agreements would be invalid. If someone were to have a business contract that had some type of international arbitration or choices of law provision, this would be invalid in Oklahoma state court. This of course not to mention the obvious that not only is it unconstitutional with respect to the First Amendment and religious liberties, but again with the international treaties…international treaties that are approved by our president and the Senate are the law of the land. And this amendment specifically says that they would not be considered valid in Oklahoma state courts. So again, it’s really a reflection of how poorly written this was and how poorly planned this was, in an attempt to attack Muslims that this amendment has actually put our state at greater risk that the alleged risk, the alleged non-existant risk that it pretends to protect the state from.
PERRY: You were responsible for a lawsuit challenging the new amendment. Can you tell us a little about your case? AWAD: Yeah. So I wrote a will that referenced a particular prophetic tradition, the prophet Mohammed, with regards to giving one’s property to charity. So in Islam, even though you’re allowed to give to charity, you can never give to charity to the point where you neglect your own family. So with respect to, I guess, for instance, I can’t give all my property to charity if I have a wife and children behind me. So based on the number of children one would have, and if they are still married at that time, then their property is divided, giving a certain amount, I guess the maximum amount that one can give to charity while still leaving an amount for his children and his wife. So my will specifically points to a specific prophetic tradition on that point, which can be found in a well-known book in Islam about the stories of the life of the prophet Mohammed. And so again with this amendment, that forbids the state court from considering Islamic law, a state court would be forbidden from considering that particular, that specific prophetic tradition in order to probate my will.
The Council on American-Islamic relations, the Oklahoma chapter has had their eyes on this since the summer. CAIR offices nationally were concerned as well. When election night came we realized that we need to act and we needed to act immediately. Potentially the most significant part of this lawsuit was the timing, not only the timing in which it was prepared but the timing in which it was filed. So what we specifically did is we asked the states to enjoin the election board from certifying the election results. We waited for the voters to vote and then we acted before the results were actually certified. So it gave us an easy remedy, or an easy act to ask the court to do, we were just asking them to delay the certification of the results until we are allowed to sort of argue and debate and consider whether this was in fact unconstitutional.
At first we asked for a temporary restraining order. That TRO was granted for seven days and then we had another trial after that in which we asked for an injunction, and that was granted as well. The community, the community in Oklahoma took a turn after the first trial, I mean, when we first filed the lawsuit, we had anti-Muslim groups, anti-Muslim individuals known for thei anti-Muslim bigotry, hatred and rhetoric. They were attacking the Council on American-Islamic Relations as an organization that was trying to stop the will of the voters. But the process, as it went on, it proved to voters what in fact was happening, that CAIR was actually defending the constitution. It proved not only that but we also saw that voters came out and admitted that they were somewhat misinformed. They were misinformed and misled by these outspoken critics of Islam and our own state legislators. People began to understand that this amendment was a threat to Oklahoma businesses, it was an offense to the religious rights of the Muslim community, it was unnecessary, and at the least, even at the least, even the people that were as far-right as can be would at least concede that it was a poorly written amendment, which was a reflection again of the incompetence of the authors of this amendment.
PERRY: Why did you decide to go to court, versus pursuing other avenues for change?
AWAD: At the time, on election night of course, we just didn’t see them as viable or available. Before the elections, CAIR conducted an extensive campaign of outreach. We spoke at universities, we spoke at churches, every type of organization that invited us to talk about State Question 755, we accepted the invitation and we went to try to inform people about what this amendment would actually do.
Personally, I graduated from law school less than two years ago. The CAIR national office in DC provided a young law school graduate as well, a recent attorney to help sort of advise us as well, to give a helping hand. You know, just…the lawsuit was the route that we found potentially most effective and the route that we were most comfortable with. But we did try to engage the community on the law, we did try to inform people, this is actually a strategy that we are conducting now, as we see…in the face of more copycat legislation. We’ve seen an instance in Indiana where someone running for office mentioned their own intentions to come up with their own anti-Sharia amendment. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reached out to that individual and reached out to the community and that individual came out and he said, you know, I’m not going to go forward with it. What we have now is that thanks to what happened in Oklahoma, people have been exposed to what these amendments actually do, they realized that these amendments are not based on rational sort of conclusions, they’re based on fear-mongering and bigotry. And not only is there a non-existant risk of an Islamic takeover, there is a very real risk to the effect it would have on our economy and on our constitutional rights if we actually do pass these amendments. And then I think it is also notable, it’s noteworthy to mention that in Oklahoma, a lot of the outreach faced a number of obstacles. We had politicians that were milking the anti-Muslim wave of bigotry as much as they could. Rex Duncan, the main author of this, has a history of offenses to this community, to the Muslim community, he’s someone who’s been outspoken as someone who doesn’t agree with Islam. Other politicians, we had other politicians that were running for office that literally were harassing the CAIR-Oklahoma events focused on interfaith dialogue. We had politicians that would come to events that we were at to bring protesters to protest against what we were doing. Other politicians would publically just state, even on their website or stump speeches that they don’t wan’t CAIR-Oklahoma in Oklahoma. They won’t meet with us, they won’t speak with us. These were the odds we faced. We honestly conducted a lot of research, we asked politicians to speak with us, and the doors were closed in our faces a number of times. This lawsuit and the following attention hopefully will expose this ugly face of anti-Muslim bigotry, and hopefully it will allow politicians to look at this issue with much more of an open mind, rather than with the intent to score political points.
PERRY: What is the current status of the lawsuit and what impact do you hope it will have?
AWAD: Currently, the decision of the federal court was appealed and it is going to the appellate court and we’re waiting to hear about when the appeal will be scheduled. Again, this was the result of a lot of political pressure, we had an incoming attorney general who sort of was being encouraged to take a stand against this, to take a stand against…at that time, it was phrased as CAIR standing in opposition to the will of the voters. However, the overwhelming sort of opinion and sentiments across the nation are that, again, this amendment is unconstitutional. Many legal scholars across the nation agree with what the lower court held, that no matter how many people you can get to vote on a specific issue during an election, you know, our constitutional rights are not up for a vote. So we’re confident that hopefully the litigation will continue taking positive steps in order to secure a permanent injunction.
But the impact is still…we see an impact, again, with this form of copycat legislation. There had been legislators across the nation who have proposed similar amendments, specifically after seeing what happened in Oklahoma, specifically after seeing the kind of popularity that this amendment had at the polls. But what we want to see happen, we don’t want to just see copycat legislation sort of fizzle off, what we want to see is that people begin to accept American Muslims as citizens, just as people of any other faith. What happened in this campaign and what’s happening in America now is that Sharia and Islamic law are being painted as this inherently dangerous and problematic form of law. But people fail to realize that religious arbitration is accepted and common in the United States today. And whether is be Catholic law, Biblical law, Jewish law, these forms of religious laws can govern what two consenting individuals want it to govern, and they can seek a court to enforce that arbitration. Muslims only ask to be treated the same way under the rules of the law as people of another faith will. Muslims practice in the United States with respect to Islamic law are lawful. Again, with respect to Islamic marriages, with respect to Islamic-compliant wills, Islamic compliant financing, these are things that we handle in the Muslim community, but we seek United States courts to enforce. You know, a United States court will not enforce something that is illegal. So the whole idea that Islam is somehow incompatible with Western law and is here to take over Western law is just ridiculous. And we hope that the attention that this State Question garnered and the attention that came from the resulting lawsuit will sort of expose this. With this in mind, with other legislatures with a lack of creativity and a mentality of intolerance and bigotry move forward with copycat legislation, we want them to realize that and we want their constituents to realize that constitutional rights, again, are not up for a vote. And the constitution already ensures that no foreign religious law will conflict with and overtake our laws. And, our constitution promotes a vibrant democracy, while providing for religious liberty.
And again, this is not only about a legal battle, we’ve seen, right after this lawsuit I spoke at a number of events, a number of interviews where I mentioned the rhetoric that came about with this lawsuit. The rhetoric, the anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry, and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that surrounded the state question, I mean, in my eyes was at its height after this election and with the resulting lawsuit, and it was being echoed by elected officials. We had elected officials that were saying things that were extremely offensive to the Muslim community, and that incited a form of hatred and violence that the Muslim community saw directly. I mean, we had members throughout the community that were getting phone calls and emails. Recently a man in Tulsa was arrested for sending a threatening DVD to an Islamic center, promising to share his message with that Islamic community. The thing is that we’re now in the wake of the Arizona tragedy, where a public call for more civil discourse has been made, and I hope people don’t only apply this call, this willingness to debate while working together, to our elected officials, but also apply it to Americans in general. This isn’t about just politicians, what politicians say actually is something that is echoed in the community by everyday citizens. So we want is engaged citizens to sort of respect this diversity in America, understand that with this democracy we can have a civil discourse, we can have a willingness to debate but debate while working togeher to achieve something greater. And hopefully this lawsuit and the resulting dialogue that comes from it, sort of exposes Americans to an idea that just because we have religious difference doesn’t mean that, doesn’t mean that we can’t work together in our democracy, in our government to achieve things that are better for our community. We shouldn’t fall victim to the exploitation of campaigns such as the one that Oklahoma had, these fear-mongering campaigns, these campaigns based on misinformation, based on hatred, based on bigotry. We have to rise above that and get to the core issues that our communities are concerned about.
PERRY: Thank you very much for speaking with us today!
AWAD: You’re very welcome.
That was Muneer Awad, Executive Director of CAIR-Oklahoma.
The National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights is a collection of more than 100 civil rights organizations and numerous individuals who came together to ensure the courts protect and ensure justice, fairness and opportunity for everyone. The campaign focuses on public education and outreach, finding ways to get the message out about the impact of court rulings on our communities, our opportunities and our rights.