Shariah at the Kumback Café
By ROGER COHEN
Published: December 6, 2010
PERRY, OKLAHOMA — They call Oklahoma the buckle of the Bible Belt. It’s the state where all 77 counties voted Republican when Barack Obama was elected and where 70.8 percent of the electorate last month approved a “Save Our State Amendment” banning Islamic, or Shariah, law.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
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So I decided to check the pulse of a resurgent conservative America at the Kumback Café. The Kumback, established 1926, is a cozy, memorabilia-filled joint that sits opposite the courthouse in downtown Perry, population 5,230.
Things work like this at the Kumback: The guys, average age about 80, arrive around 8 a.m. and get talking on “the whole gamut of life”; the girls, average age too indelicate to print, gather later at a horse-shoe shaped table toward the back. Ken Sherman, 86 and spry, explained: “We’ve got to come here every day to find out what’s going on. And by the time we leave we forget.”
I asked Paul Morrow, a whippersnapper at 71, how things were going. “There’s just too much Muslim influence, all this Shariah law,” he said. “We’re conservative here, old and cantankerous.”
You might not expect Shariah, a broad term encompassing Islamic religious precepts, to be a priority topic at the Kumback given that there’s not a Muslim in Perry and perhaps 30,000, or less than one percent of the population, in all Oklahoma. And you’d be wrong.
Shariah is the new hot-button wedge issue, as radicalizing as abortion or gay marriage, seized on by Republicans to mobilize conservative Americans against the supposed “stealth jihad” of Muslims in the United States and against a Democratic president portrayed as oblivious to — or complicit with — the threat. Not since 9/11 has Islamophobia been at such a pitch in the United States.
The neoconservative Center for Security Policy in Washington recently described Shariah as “the pre-eminent totalitarian threat of our time.” Many Republicans, with Newt Gingrich leading, have signed up. Their strategy is clear: Conflate Obama with creeping Shariah and achieve the political double-whammy of feeding rampant rumors that he’s a closet Muslim and fanning the fears that propel a conservative lurch.
It’s not pretty, in fact it’s pretty odious, but to judge by the Republican surge last month, it’s effective in an anxiety-filled America.
Galvanized by State Question 755, barring “courts from considering or using Shariah Law,” Republicans swept to the Oklahoma governorship and veto-proof majorities in the Legislature for the first time.
Question 755 was “a pre-emptive strike,” in the words of its most active proponent, Republican State Representative Rex Duncan, whose portrait hangs in the Kumback. The question arises, given the quiet on the prairies, against whom? A prominent Oklahoma pastor, Paul Blair, told me it was aimed at those “whose plan is not to coexist but bring the whole world under Islam.”
A preliminary federal injunction, granted after a prominent local Muslim, Muneer Awad, challenged the constitutionality of the amendment in the nation where “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” has blocked its certification for now. The very curious case of Shariah and Oklahoma may be headed to the Supreme Court.
Marilee Macias, the bubbly owner of the Kumback, swung by. “Duncan’s ahead of the game,” she said. “He’s a military guy, been around the world. I don’t know what these Muslims are preparing but I know that stoning women, we don’t want that here.”
Bud Johnson, 84, who worked in Washington and is gently mocked at the Kumback for his East Coast liberalism, shook his head. “It’s going to cost the state a lot of money to try to defend a stupid law,” he said. “There should be a reason for a law, not just hatred and emotions. But my view went down here like the Titanic. The fear element has got us.”
To understand U.S. politics today, try “It’s the fear element, stupid.”
I asked Frank Lawson, 83, about Obama. “I think the young man’s a Muslim,” he said. Case closed. He continued: “I got on the computer, punched in Koran, and there it is in black and white: They are out to rule the world and if you don’t convert, they kill you.” Cherry-picked inflammatory phrases, attributed to the Koran but more often lifted from interpretations of it, course through Oklahoman churches and spread via Internet chatter.
Sherman asked me what “that huge Muslim movement that took over Europe,” was called. I couldn’t help. “Begins with ‘O”’ he said. “The Ottoman Empire?” I ventured. Yep. Case closed again.
Things were quiet on Perry’s main square. So quiet the “Muslim threat” was hard to imagine. It was even harder to imagine that, right here, Timothy McVeigh, the homegrown terrorist who killed 168 people in a 1995 Oklahoma attack, was held after being stopped by a state trooper outside Perry for having no license plate.
Nobody initially suspected McVeigh. Suspicion fell on men “of Middle Eastern appearance,” including Imad Enchassi, now the imam of a large Oklahoma mosque, who told me, “Things are much worse now, I’m looking over my shoulder for the first time.”