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Fight over Oklahoma Sharia ban loomed well before 9/11

If Oklahoma seems an odd territory on which to decide the future of Muslim America, the seeds of this current dispute were sowed on a clear, spring morning in April 1995.

Firemen at the base of the nine-storey Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after the April 1995 bombing. AFP
Firemen at the base of the nine-storey Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after the April 1995 bombing. AFP

Not much happens in Oklahoma. The talk of the town is next month's Pumpkin Palooza, which promises "an arsenal of fun for the entire family"; meanwhile, the front page of The Oklahoman is leading on a new traffic light being installed downtown.

It's a sleepy sort of place, with lots of sprawling green fields bordered by arid high plains and a scant population of less than four million scattered across its 181,000 square kilometres.

On any weekday, Oklahoma City is a ghost town after offices shut at 5.30pm. "Boring" is a word that crops up often on blogs posted by disconsolate youth.

That is about to change. A landmark test case has been brought here in the American heartlands and the attention of legislators across the US is now focused on Oklahoma.

It was here, nearly a year ago, that the electorate voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on Sharia, Islamic law.

The Save Our State amendment to Oklahoma law, which swept the polls with 70 per cent of voters in favour when it went to a ballot in November 2010, sought to prevent Sharia from ever being taken into consideration in any legal matter.

Only a temporary injunction brought by Muneer Awad, the executive director of the state chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (Cair), blocked it from becoming enshrined in law.

This week both sides were back in federal court, this time in Denver for a three-day hearing: Cair in a bid to make the injunction permanent, Oklahoma's attorney general to appeal the original decision. Another 20 states are poised to follow suit, depending on the outcome.

And it started here in the South's Bible belt, a fact made all the more extraordinary because in Oklahoma, less than one per cent of the population is Muslim.

Why then has Oklahoma made such a reactionary move?

Rex Duncan, the chairman of the Oklahoma State House Judiciary Committee who applied for the original ban, admitted he had not heard of a single case where Sharia had been invoked, adding Islamic law was not "an imminent threat ... yet". "I see this in the future somewhere in America," he said. "It is a storm on the horizon in other states." His motion, known as State Question 755, was a "pre-emptive strike" against a "looming threat".

Storm on the horizon. Pre-emptive strike. Looming threat. This is the vocabulary of conflict, echoing George Bush's "war on terror" speech in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Yet Oklahoma is no raging battleground and few of its 30,000 Muslims have been known to stir up trouble.

Nevertheless, to understand the root of this mistrust, we have to go back to a spring morning in April 1995.

•••

The bright blue sky on April 19, 1995, brought the promise of summer, arching overhead without a cloud to be seen. Later, it was to be seen as a presager for another terrible chapter in America's history - a crisp, clear morning which preceded the deaths of nearly 3,000 victims on September 11, 2001.

This was six years before the worst terrorist attack on US soil and the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building and its municipal surroundings were a hive of activity by 9am. A queue had formed at the social security office, where Daina Bradley was waiting in line with her mother, sister and two children to claim benefits. A children's nursery on the second floor of the building was packed with toddlers; others in the building had just started work for the day.

The peace was torn apart at 9.02am by an earth-shattering bomb. A Ryder rental truck packed with explosives and parked near the Murrah building detonated, claiming 168 lives, including 19 children under the age of six.

The devastation was beyond comprehension, the blast sheared off the entire face of the nine-storey building. Nearly 700 people were injured and more than 300 buildings in the vicinity either destroyed or damaged. Bradley survived; most of her family did not. Wedged under a teetering tower of concrete, she had to be rescued by a doctor who sawed off her right leg with a pocket knife. The emergency operation was performed without the benefit of anaesthetic.

It was estimated a fifth of the population of Oklahoma City attended a funeral in the following days. But the indelible scar the attacks left was the one on the national psyche.

In the immediate aftermath, the bombing was blamed on Islamist extremists. Robert Heibel, a former FBI counter-terrorism expert, said the attack bore all the hallmarks of Middle Eastern terrorists.

John Magaw, then the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), told CNN: "I think any time you have this kind of damage, this kind of explosion, you have to look there first."

And Steven Emerson, who was behind the TV documentary Terrorists Among Us: Jihad in America, said the attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible was "a Middle Eastern trait", on a par with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

It didn't seem to matter that there was scant evidence linking Islamic fundamentalists to the Oklahoma attack. In a knee-jerk reaction repeated many times since, a Jordanian living in the state was arrested in transit as he tried to fly to Amman on the morning of the attack and was returned to the US.

The American Civil Liberties Union protested against the arrest of Abraham Ahmed, complaining he was a victim of racial profiling. He was subsequently released. By then, the FBI had their man - Timothy McVeigh - who was also arrested within hours of the bombing. He became the investigation's main suspect two days later.

His accomplice, Terry Nichols, who helped build the bomb, turned himself in on April 21.

As far as the FBI was concerned, it was an open-and-shut case. McVeigh and Nichols had links to white supremacists and were known militia movement sympathisers; photocopied pages from The Turner Diaries, a novel written by a former leader of a white separatist organisation, the National Alliance, and deemed "the Bible of the racist right" by the FBI (the copied pages featured a mortar attack on the Capitol in Washington), were found in McVeigh's car. In addition, the pair were openly anti-government, particularly after the Waco siege, in which 76 members of the Branch Davidian sect died in a fire exactly two years earlier - on April 19.

The FBI had its culprits. Preparations for a trial were soon under way. For some though, the speculation of a Middle Eastern hand in the affair simply wouldn't go away.

•••

Homegrown terrorists, motivated by a hatred of authority. That was the outcome of the federal investigation but loose ends remained.

How had two men managed to mix such an enormous volume of chemicals - 2,200kg of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, nitromethane and diesel fuel - into 13 barrels in just three hours?

One eyewitness account reported up to to five men working on the preparations by the rental truck. Then there was the sighting of a brown Chevrolet pickup truck, the subject of an FBI hunt, and two Middle Eastern-looking men seen running from the building just before the blast.

There was also John Doe 2, the mystery man who may or may not have been a cohort and whose description matched neither that of McVeigh (John Doe 1) nor Nichols.

The FBI bulletin released on April 20 had him as a white, square-jawed male with black hair. Even though McVeigh was executed in 2001 by lethal injection, insisting he and Nichols worked alone, his lawyer Stephen Jones was convinced there were "others unknown" involved in the devastating attack.

In his 1998 book, Others Unknown: The Oklahoma City Bombing Case and Conspiracy, Jones focused on the murky connections with Elohim City in Oklahoma, a "strange and motley crew of white supremacists" known to McVeigh.

Its founder Robert Millar had previously belonged to a group known as The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of the Lord, which was first raided by the FBI on April 19, 1985. Officers found a list of facilities earmarked for attack, including the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building, with suggestions it could be blown up by parking a van in front packed with rockets and detonated by a timer.

Jones devotes a chapter to conspiracy theories about the Middle East.

His search for evidence took him to the Philippines, where he discovered a man matching Nichols' description had met Ramzi Yousef, who went on to build a truck bomb in an attempt to topple the World Trade Center in 1993, and his co-conspirators in the Bojinka plot to bring down 12 planes in 1995, Abdul Hakim Murad and Wali Khan. The topics discussed were bomb-making and handling firearms.

Jayna Davis, a former reporter for the Oklahoman TV station KFOR-TV, went further. In her 2004 book The Third Terrorist: The Middle East Connection to the Oklahoma City Bombing, she compiled a dossier on Hussain al Hussaini, a former Iraqi soldier she claimed was a ringer for John Doe 2 and allegedly spent the night of April 15 drinking with McVeigh in a strip club.

She said a brown Chevy matching the FBI's description was parked outside the offices of Al Hussaini's Palestinian boss.

"This was a foreign conspiracy masterminded and funded by Osama bin Laden," she declared on Fox News. There was, she said, a "Middle East terrorist cell" responsible for the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building, suggesting McVeigh could have been duped into a larger conspiracy - the fall guy in a foreign plot.

Al Hussaini sued for defamation and the FBI snubbed Davis' requests for officers to look at the dossier she had compiled.

Certainly, there was an Oklahoman connection to the September 11 attacks. Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, attended flight school there from February to May 2001 with the hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwen al Shehhi.

But the shadowy links Davis makes are a long way from what she labels her "crusade to disseminate the truth" or her assertion that the Twin Towers could still be standing today if anyone had backed her theory that "foreign invaders slaughtered nearly 200 Americans".

As she herself admits, the FBI told her "the dots simply do not connect".

•••

What emerges is a picture of suspicion and hostility towards a maligned Muslim community, even before September 11.

The Oklahoma bombing took place in a climate of fear. After the first Gulf War, hundreds of Iraqis were given refugee status in the US. Many eventually settled in the rural heartlands.

For Reverend Jeff Hamilton, president of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation in Oklahoma, the anti-Islamic sentiment expressed in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 bombing was an opportunity to build bridges. The organisation was born in the months following the attack.

"After the bombing, there was so much hysteria about a Muslim plot," he says. "The founders of the alliance went to the Muslim community to offer their support. We embrace all the religious traditions and have worked on a lot of issues together."

A key focus is education in schools and inter-faith events, ranging from iftar dinners during Ramadan to a memorial service marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

But they face a constant battle against organisations such as Act for America, a lobby group with 175,000 members, whose founder, Brigitte Gabriel (she operates under an assumed name), says: "Being an Islamophobe is not an irrational fear. We are dealing with terrorists among us, trying to blow us up, whether we acknowledge it or not."

She plans to spread her message of hate to Australia: "It is like a McDonald's franchise."

Still, much work has been done to assuage those fears and combat misunderstanding.

The imam Imad Enchassi, president of the Islamic Society of Oklahoma and a key player in the inter-faith alliance, says: "Although Muslims make up less than one per cent of the population, we are extremely cohesive and there are a lot of bridges of communication because we all lived through the bombing.

"It had a constructive effect on our outreach into other communities. Many national outreach programmes started here in Oklahoma.

"Before 1995, the Muslim community was in its own cocoon. The bombing put us in the international spotlight and took us as a community from adolescence to adulthood."

Imams began visiting schools, universities, colleges, churches and community groups to explain the tenets of Islam. They also took part in interfaith conferences and panels on the prevention of terrorism.

Muslim youth were encouraged to volunteer in community projects, such as the Food Bank initiative for the homeless. Significantly, the first donation to the Oklahoman widows' fund came from the Islamic association.

"There has been a huge emphasis on taking part in social projects," says Enchassi. "It is part of our faith and something we should have been doing prior to being wrongly accused.

"We are Americans, Oklahomans and we are Muslims," he adds.

That progress is under threat now from the lawsuit being battled out this week in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Enchassi says the Muslim community had "no choice" but to fight the Sharia ban. It is already beginning to split the community, with both the imam and Cair receiving reams of hate mail.

At the heart of the case is a pledge by Duncan, joined by a clamour of voices, to prevent America's "Judeo-Christian principles" being "undermined".

He said the conflict between those founding tenets of American society and Islamic traditions embodied in Sharia represented a "cultural war, a social war, a war for the survival of our country".

Awad, who acted swiftly to bring a temporary injunction against the ruling being implemented, said it violated the First Amendment of the US constitution, which adheres to the principle of free religious expression and forbids the singling out of any one religious group. He added that the state question had demonised Muslims and smeared them with a "profound stigma" that would relegate them "to an ineffectual position within the political community".

He argued that if the ban was brought into practice, it would ride roughshod over marriage contracts, divorces, wills, financial arrangements and even business deals.

Moreover, he said the law would be impossible to uphold without the state courts defining what constituted Sharia. He said: "There is no single religious text that all Muslims accept as the exclusive source for what the Sharia ban calls 'Sharia law'".

A federal district court judge upheld the injunction and Oklahoma's attorney general filed an appeal, which is being heard this week. A decision is expected to take at least six months, when the case will be referred back to the state's district courts so Cair can fight for a permanent injunction. The final port of call could even be the US Supreme Court.

In its appeal against the injunction, the state's attorney general said: "Just as Mr Awad's First Amendment rights are fundamental, so too are the voting rights of the 695,000 Oklahomans who voted in favour."

Nor is this only an issue in Oklahoma. In an indication of a wide-sweeping mistrust of Islam and deep-seated misconceptions about its doctrine, middle America is joining the clamour. Tennessee, Arizona and Michigan have added their voices to the collective of 20 states that want to implement the same ban.

And all eyes are on Denver to see which way the arrow will swing.

Meanwhile, the sway of the public vote is being left to the likes of Frank Gaffney, the founder of the Center for Security Policy and the author of Shariah: The Threat to America, which claims that most Muslim organisations are merely fronts for violent jihadists.

This is the man who called on the US military to "take out" the Al Jazeera TV network in 2003 and has accused Barack Obama of "embracing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood".

In a display of breathtaking ignorance, he warned on his radio show of "an ominous element in the forces of Sharia that now suggests they are moving inexorably in the direction of all-out war against us".

His guest on the show that day? None other than Jayna Davis, who includes a recommendation from Gaffney in her book.

This comes as no surprise to Awad, who says Muslims are pawns in a political game. Coupled with more vocal conservatism and a political climate weighted against Muslims, it makes them an easy target.

"Politicians noticed anti-Islamic sentiment was stirring up a lot of feeling and realised that putting a divisive issue on the ballot would get a lot of constituents to the polls," he says.

"Muslims have become the popular minority to attack. It has really created a paranoia in the more conservative states, which you probably would not see in the bigger cities."

A recent study into Islamophobia by the Center for American Progress found a handful of US institutions - Gaffney's among them - had nominated themselves as the fear-mongering voices of the masses.

"I don't blame the voters," Awad says. "It is down to anti-Muslim hate groups who find their partners in the state capitol or US Capitol. It gives them an authority they do not have. Most are not able to define what Sharia is.

"To me, it is about bringing benefit to your society and keeping it from harm but it is also about respecting the law of the land.

"This is a harmful attempt to demonise and marginalise Muslims and will enshrine in the constitution that Islam is a unique threat.

"There were a lot of people who encouraged us not to file a lawsuit because they did not want to see a backlash. They thought it was political theatre ... but we recognised it had a lot of consequences."

Enchassi paid for that backlash with abusive e-mails and phone calls.

He decided to tackle them in a different way and invited everyone who wrote to him to lunch, presented them with copies of the Quran or took them on a guided tour of a mosque.

One man who denounced Islam as a violent religion returned repeatedly during Friday prayers and finally converted five months later.

"The court case created an atmosphere of hate," says Enchassi. "We knew that was going to happen but we had no choice. Out of evil always comes good."

For one Oklahoman Muslim, who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks, anti-Islamic fervour has not dampened her enthusiasm for the country: "America is a land for everyone. People say it is a dream country and for me, that is still true."

Tahira Yaqoob is a senior features writer for The National.