Islamophobia vs. bad journalism

Here in the nutty, right-wing, Bible Belt state of Oklahoma, we go to the polls Tuesday to cast our ballots and, hopefully, stop the incessant radio and TV commercials from those who are sneaking in our borders and accosting our way of life. I am talking, of course, about the politicians. Seriously, folks, I am willing to give my vote to the first candidate to shut up for a full five minutes.

I jest. I jest.

Most of the commercials I hear seem to relate to our Republican gubernatorial candidate who is going to stand up to Washington (by moving from Congress to the governor’s office in Oklahoma City) and the massive education spending measure that would pay for itself by cutting $2 billion in tax breaks for special interests (you don’t think there’s any teacher union involvement in that wholly believable campaign, do you?).

But I digress. This is GetReligion, so let me get to today’s topic: Sharia religious law. And today’s other topic: Bad journalism. And to play a starring role in both topics: the Los Angeles Times.

Besides voting on State Question 744 — the education spending measure referenced earlier — Oklahomans will decide 10 other state questions Tuesday. One of them, State Question 755, would ban Sharia law in the state. Here’s how The Oklahoman, one of the nation’s more conservative newspapers, described the measure in an editorial urging voters to reject it:

This is another feel-good measure that has no practical effect and needn’t be added to the Oklahoma Constitution. The question would prohibit the use of international or Sharia law when cases are decided in Oklahoma courts. As it is, judges exclusively use state and federal law to guide their judicial decision-making. Passing the question might make some politicians happy and make some Oklahomans feel better. That’s all it would do. Voters should reject it as unnecessary.

The L.A. Times, too, considers the measure downright unnecessary. Unfortunately, that newspaper chose to make its position clear not in an editorial but in a news story. Here’s the lede on the Times’ story:

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.

The rest of the story follows much the same pattern of making clear exactly how crazy the ballot measure is, according to the Times.

Supporters “can point to only a handful of cases that merely allude to the centuries-old, complex tangle of Muslim religious law.” Backers “have cited only three cases that they contend show the threat of Sharia law.” Blanket statements are attributed to “some conservative activists.”

Another weakness of the story is that it fails to highlight the bigger picture of Oklahoma politics. The Sharia ballot question is not placed into the context of a larger conservative movement in the state. Typically, we GetReligionistas complain when reporters focus too much on the politics and not enough on the religion. In this case, the politics seem to be crucial to understanding what’s occurring. For example, consider this story from The Oklahoman:

Oklahoma voters will decide several ballot issues next week that critics say pander to extreme conservatives and would move the state further to the right.

State questions on Tuesday’s ballot would make English the state’s official language, prohibit Oklahoma courts from considering international or Islamic law when deciding cases, and allow residents to opt out of the new federal health care reform law.

The three questions are the product of a Republican-controlled Legislature, which circumvented Gov. Brad Henry — a Democrat — to take them to the ballot. Critics say Republicans are trying to beef up voter turnout among certain conservative groups by appealing to biases on immigration, Islam and the reach of Washington in a state where President Barack Obama failed to win a single county in 2008.

For a much better national treatment of Oklahoma’s Sharia measure, take a look at CNN’s informative report by national security producer Laurie Ure:

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (CNN) – Oklahoma voters are considering an unusual question that will appear on their ballots this Tuesday: whether Islamic law can be used in considering cases in state court.

The question is the doing of State Rep. Rex Duncan. The Republican is the main author of State Question 755, also known as the “Save our State” constitutional amendment, one of 11 questions on the state ballot.

The question might seem a befuddling one for a ballot in the heartland, but it stems from a New Jersey legal case in which a Muslim woman went to a family court asking for a restraining order against her spouse claiming he had raped her repeatedly. The judge ruled against her, saying that her husband was abiding by his Muslim beliefs regarding spousal duties. The decision was later overruled by an appellate court, but the case sparked a firestorm.

Keep reading the CNN report, and you get nuance, you get Newt Gingrich proposing a federal law along the same lines, you get actual ballot wording, you get details on the claims made in media ads, and you even get this kind of real reporting with input from a real person:

Quraishi insists that Islam does not allow for men to mistreat women, and that the New Jersey case involved a “crazy, loony man, unfortunately a Muslim.”

“That is not Islam,” he said.

“Oklahoma, you know, is a very Republican state,” Quraishi said. He accused some lawmakers with attempting to instill fear in the heads of constituents in order to drum up votes. “But Oklahomans are not like that. I know most of the Oklahomans. They’re very nice people.”

CNN’s report practices good old-fashioned journalism. Just for kicks, the Los Angeles Times might try it sometime. Even when writing about a nutty, right-wing, Bible Belt state such as Oklahoma.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    … This story should be directly linked with Mollie’s story and thus the coverage should reflect that link. Too often we see stories that don’t reflect a larger perspective and in this case asking Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement and be part of the larger society is impacted by measures which are born of ignorance and fear and can be seen as an attack on a minority group’s religion.

    Of course the state can ban certain religious practices such as polygamy. And in the case of sharia law, obviously American principles are governing. But the ignorance about what Sharia includes, such as a different banking system, is obvious and could be perceived as an attack based on fear and hatred. And that would impact the willingness of Muslims to cooperate with terror investigations.

  • Jeffrey

    While the lead may be a little snarky, the LA TImes story does actually do a fair examination of the law and its context. I’m not sure laws targeting minority religions need to be treated with the sober objectivity the CNN story gave it. You can imagine if Oklahoma wanted to ban Talumudic law, they wouldn’t be treating everyone with such sober objectivity and treating its supporters with such kid-gloves.

    It does point out the double standard that attacks on minority religions are treated and evaluated.

  • Bobby

    Jeffrey, I guess you could call me a glutton for sober objectivity in news reporting.

    Not sure why, but I’m just now seeing these comments. Usually, I get an e-mail alerting me. Hopefully, I shouldn’t read too much into that. :-)

  • Mollie

    I think a good test for whether a lede is appropriate or not is, “Would I use these exact words in an advocacy editorial to lead readers to agree with my own view?”

    And if you would, then it’s probably a good indication that you needed the cathartic writing exercise . . . followed by the repeated use of the delete key . . . and another try.

  • Bobby

    That is a good test, Mollie. I had never thought about it like that.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I thought in journalism 3 was a trend. So if the backers of this law have cited three cases obviously it is because they have are journalists or have come to understand the methods of journalists and know you do not need to cite a fourth example, because 3 always proves the trend.

    To be sure I am mocking the Los Angeles Times. The measure is at least as pointless as the Michigan changing of the designation handicapped to disabled by aballot measure, but has the slight benefit of not having any clear cost associated with it passing. Since I voted for the mentioned Michigan measure, I would probably vote for this Oklahoma measure, but I will agree there is no compelling need for it.

    Still, if journalists can operate on the assumption that three proves a trend, why can’t other people as well. The only is such a loaded word. I mean, there have been laws passed where there were no examples of why the law needed to be past that could be cited.

  • John Pack Lambert

    If someone pushing for a fair-housing law to protect gender identity cited three examples of people being removed from their house because of gender identity, would the LA Times ever say this was a case of “only” three examples?

  • Dave

    Now I know why I like your stuff, Mollie. We think about words the same way.

  • Will

    The question which immediately comes to mind is how one would “ban sharia” or “ban halakah”. Would, say, stores be forbidden to sell halal food?

  • Dave

    Will, in NY Jewish-law courts sometimes mediate disputes if both parties accept their jurisdiction. As long as it’s a civil and not a criminal complaint, private mediation is perfectly legal. A law banning Sharia in OK would forbid Muslims from doing the same thing — most likely unconstitutionally because of selecting one religion for negative treatment.

  • Jettboy

    Will and Dave, the law is not to make the use of Sharia by Private individuals illegal. It is to make any use of those by State Law illegal. And, as has been pointed out, there have been 3 cases where it was used to decide an outcome of State Law. Kind of like that court in Texas that used the quote from Dickens in Star Trek II as part of the argument. The U.S. Constitution and even presidence is no longer the standards of Law, but whatever those in judgment decide. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind a law that declares State Law can only be decided using arguments that are clearly associative of the U.S. Constitution or past decisions leading to the same.

  • Will

    Very well. In that case, would it mean that Islamic financial contracts would be unenforceable by the courts?

  • Julia

    As it is, judges exclusively use state and federal law to guide their judicial decision-making

    Actually, that’s not true. When there is a unique fact situation that a court has not previously addressed, courts will often look for guidance to similar cases in different jurisdictions which have no authority at all. Sometimes that’s another state. Recently S. Court justices have used foreign law in support of their rulings or dissents.

    Allowing Sharia only for private situations may not be protecting US women citizens whose rights are much diminished under Sharia. You might say that she could refuse to go along, but that could put her in a dangerous situation.

    The UK is already dealing with what to do about Sharia law. I’ll hope we don’t follow their example.

  • Jettboy

    Why is is that “The Separation of Church and State” is completely ignored by Liberals when it comes to Muslims? The idea of Sharia Law getting invoked by State Law should send shivers up their spines, but they seem to embrace the idea with opens arms and a declaration of multi-culturalism. Just goes to show they don’t really worry about religion and the Constitution, but Christianity and proud to be Americans.

  • anon

    “Sharia” (there are 4 different schools of Sharia) and Halaka (Jewish law) are already enforced by the U.S. constitution—concepts such as—a person is innocent until proven guilty and equality of all under law are in both Sharia and Halaka.

    …so what happens to these concepts when they ban “sharia”? or are they simply going to selectively ban sharia?