An Okie asks: Is RNS the new CAIR?

On a recent post on its Facebook page, Religion News Service asked:

See if you can spot the garb that scared Juan Williams.

The link took RNS' Facebook followers to a site making light of Williams and "other ignorant" people with an "irrational fear of Muslims." Funny stuff. Unless, of course, you thought RNS was serious about its motto: "The only secular news and photo service devoted to unbiased coverage of religion and ethics -- exclusively."

An unbiased news service would not take sides on Williams' remarks, and in my opinion, would not give readers reason to question its allegiances with an offhand post -- if that's what it was -- like the one above.

I bring up the above post because I am about to review what I believe is an absolutely atrocious RNS story on a recent anti-Sharia law passed by Oklahoma voters. Before I do so, I should point out that I appreciate all the important, insightful work that RNS does. But the story I am about to review crashes and burns in an extraordinary way.

The story follows up on a vote that I discussed in my recent Islamophobia vs. bad journalism post. If you haven't read that post, it provides helpful background on this topic. (In breaking news, a federal judge in Oklahoma City today issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state constitutional amendment.)

Here's the top of RNS' story on Oklahoma's vote:

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Sarah Albahadily will wear her headscarf to a Brad Paisley concert and her cowboy boots to mosque. There are two things she says she never misses: Friday prayers and University of Oklahoma football games.

But after seven in 10 Oklahoma voters on Tuesday (Nov. 2) approved State Question 755, a constitutional amendment that prohibits courts from using Islamic law, known as Shariah, Albahadily suddenly feels a little less at home in the Sooner State.

"It's disheartening. Even though it was expected, you still feel the blow," said Albahadily, 27, as she drove to the Mercy School, a K-12 Islamic school in Oklahoma City where she teaches science.

So far, so good.

Sarah Albahadily and I both like Brad Paisley and the Oklahoma Sooners (although I'm not sure what happened to them in College Station, Texas, the other night), but I digress.

In all seriousness, I like the lede. It makes me want to read the rest of the story. In an unbiased news account, I expect that I'll hear from supporters and opponents of the law and gain a better understanding of the reasons behind the measure.

Nope. This is not an unbiased news story. This is a one-sided hit piece on the state of Oklahoma.

On the same Election Day last Tuesday, 81 percent of Oklahoma voters rejected a mammoth education spending proposal. I can imagine that if RNS reported on education issues, it would have quoted only teachers who voted with the 19 percent and couched the story entirely in terms of anti-education Oklahomans showing their fervent hatred of teachers. Somehow, I think the voting was a bit -- read: a few billion dollars -- more complicated than that. The same is true of the Islamic law question.

From the RNS piece:

In many ways, State Question 755 will likely have little impact either in Oklahoma or elsewhere -- Muslims quickly point out they never lobbied for Shariah law, and many wouldn't support its use anyway.

What really worries Muslims is the anti-Muslim fervor that fueled it. It's the same sentiment behind the aborted Quran bonfire in Florida and the opposition to an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. The bottom line: Muslims increasingly feel unwelcome, unwanted and viewed by their neighbors as un-American. And if that sentiment can be legislated in one state, they say, it could be legislated in another.

Anti-Muslim fervor fueled the Oklahoma vote? OK, we'll have to take RNS' word for it because the news service provides no evidence to back up that claim. Nor is there any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to tie the Oklahoma vote to the sentiment behind the aborted Quran burning.

From my earlier post, you'll recall this from CNN's pre-election coverage of the Oklahoma vote:

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.

RNS fails to mention that case or reason -- whether one agrees with it or not -- for proposing the Oklahoma law. In fact, RNS quotes no one who supported the law. RNS quotes no evangelicals who voted yes to see if they did so because of anti-Muslim hatred. RNS does not even quote the lawmaker who pushed the state question, instead providing this background:

The referendum was primarily authored by Republican state Rep. Rex Duncan, and sailed through the state's legislature. In 2007, Duncan made headlines when he refused a copy of a Quran given to lawmakers by the Governor's Ethnic American Advisory Council. On Tuesday, he won a bid for a county district attorney position.

In other words, Duncan is an anti-Muslim jerk who doesn't deserve a voice in an unbiased national wire service story.

There's more:

Muslims say the referendum worsened anti-Muslim prejudice that was already enflamed by the Ground Zero controversy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and frequent visits from Islamophobic speakers like Brigitte Gabriel, hosted by local churches and conservative organizations.

"It's really brought the Muslim-haters out," said Allison Moore, a Muslim activist in Tulsa.

Where did Brigitte Gabriel speak? Which specific churches and organizations hosted her? As a matter of fact, who the heck is she? What did she say? I'm assuming that RNS has a policy against letting "Islamophobic speakers" respond to criticism because, again, there's no input from her.

Pardon my sarcasm, but at this point, RNS' unbiased coverage reads a whole lot more like a press release from CAIR. We have to ask, at the very least: Where is the other side of the story? Where are the other voices? If there are voices of prejudice, please quote them. If there are voices that favored the bill for reasons other than outright prejudice, quote them. Please.

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