Separation of mosque and state: In covering anti-Shariah bill, media muddy issues

Those intolerant South Carolinians have gotten a lot of people upset -- in a lot of lands -- starting with their home state press. A bill in the state house would ban use of the Islamic legal code known as Shariah, an issue that has been thrashed out in at least 16 other states. In this edition, though, most media have produced biased, fragmentary coverage. They’ve also given the most space to the protesters.

The apparent start was a story in the Columbia Post and Courier on Friday:

COLUMBIA — A national group that lobbies for Muslim civil liberties asked the S.C. Legislature on Friday to drop a bill that would ban Sharia law from being used as a defense in state courts, saying it is unconstitutional.
Council on American-Islamic Relations attorney William Burgess said the bill violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause on religion because it is designed to attack Muslim religious principles.
Sharia law is the legal framework where the public and some private aspects of life are regulated under legal systems based on Islam.
“This legislation is very similar to the Oklahoma anti-Sharia constitutional amendment that was struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause in a federal court challenge brought by CAIR,” Burgess wrote.

At least they took a stab at defining Shariah. But it doesn't clarify why anyone would find Shariah objectionable.

The Post and Courier quotes the CAIR letter that cites the Oklahoma case, in which a federal judge ruled the anti-Shariah law breached the separation of church and state.  Finally -- at the end of the article -- the newspaper allows Rep. Chip Limehouse, the bill sponsor, to give an example of what the bill might prevent: “(With this law) an attorney can’t go into state court and say that the defendant that beat up his daughter for going on a date with a non-Muslim was within his rights according to (Sharia law)." But Limehouse doesn't get to answer Burgess' assertion that the bill is unconstitutional.

Perhaps the Post and Courier thought it could shorten the story because it ran another piece the previous day. But of course, they couldn't be sure the readers saw that one. Also, that story had four paragraphs of counter-argument from an opponent in the legislature, saying the bill wouldn't help pay for roads or build education or increase jobs. So the cumulative effect of both stories is still negative.

For a better report, you have to look across the nation -- to the Courthouse News Service, based in Pasadena, Calif.  Their story, which moved around the same time, is longer and more balanced:

(CN) - A bill in the South Carolina Legislature that would prohibit attorneys and defendants from citing Sharia law or any international regulation in court is a step closer to adoption.
After a second reading, the state House passed the provision sponsored by Charleston Rep. Chip Limehouse by a vote of 68-42.
On Friday, in the wake of the vote, the Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the S.C. General Assembly to drop what the group described as the continuation of a national campaign by state lawmakers "demonize Islam and to marginalize American Muslims."

See what I mean? It's terser, more forceful, yet fairer. It then segues into a pro/con segment:

South Carolina lawmakers readily concede they can point to not a single example of someone trying to cite Sharia law, or any international law, in a court within the state.
Nevertheless, Rep. Limehouse believes there's a real need, as the bill states, "to prevent a court or other enforcement authority from enforcing foreign law including, but not limited to, sharia law in this state from a forum outside of the United States or its territories ..."

But the CN report isn't unflawed. It says that the American Bar Association has opposed anti-Shariah laws as redundant and meant to stigmatize an entire religious community." Actually, it reports CAIR saying that; apparently, it didn’t check for itself.

And talk about redundancy -- here is CN's definition: "Sharia law is the legal framework for legal systems based on Islam." How do you define a word by using similar terms three times?

But the coverage worsened over the weekend, after Al-Jazeera got hold of the story. That's right, the same Al-Jazeera that I've been praising for its sensitivity and sharp eye on religion news. But not for this alarmist version of the South Carolina story.

The article is terribly lopsided, starting with the lede: "A state politician's bill to bar foreign laws, including Islamic law, from South Carolina's courts is an unnecessary move that fuels anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, rights groups say."

Eight quotes come from Robert McCaw of CAIR. He says the South Carolina bill is part of a national "environment of fear" meant to "stigmatise Muslim communities." Says U.S. courts are already bound to follow U.S. law. Warns of "a state and federal trend for support for legislation which seeks to make the religious principles of Islam illegal."

As context, Al-Jazeera cites Donald Trump's call for American Muslims to be tracked and mosques to be watched. It also brings up the recent terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, "after which several mosques and Islamic religious centres were vandalised in the US."

And the article mentions "at least six anti-foreign law bills introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2015," without specifying what that means. Were they anti-Shariah? Something else?

At least Al-Jazeera interviews Limehouse, the bill sponsor -- although tainting him as a member of the "right-wing Republican Party." He says people of every religion are welcome, but they must "operate and live under our laws when they get here -- and hopefully prosper."

That's nice. But then the article has McCaw come back with: "It's obvious that this is an incredibly toxic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim environment, and that is has impacted our state and federal legislatures."

Even as its American branch prepares to close April 30, Al-Jazeera's coverage retains considerable influence. You may have noticed that the above article ran on GhanaWeb. I also saw a digest in The Manila Times. Both stories had the same scare-mongering headline: "US anti-Islamic bills create 'environment of fear'."


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