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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy