Sheryl Siddiqui, spokesperson for the Islamic Council of Oklahoma, wants only black tea.
“One of my big jihads is training myself to only eat when I’m hungry.”
We’re at Old School Bagel Cafe.
“Are you sure?” I ask, offering to split my salt bagel.
“So where do we begin?”
“This is just me, Sheryl, okay? I’m only speaking for myself—not in any official capacity.”
I ask whether that’s really possible in Oklahoma, whether she can ever just be Sheryl. She smiles.
Siddiqui is on the boards of The Oklahoma Center for Community & Justice (OCCJ) and the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-OK). She has chaired Tulsa Partners Inc.’s Language & Culture Bank, worked on First Amendment issues and volunteered her time to combat domestic violence. She also advocates for mental health and wants to spend more time pursuing her passion: disaster mitigation. She’s married to neonatologist Dr. Ali Siddiqui and has three married sons and five grandchildren.
She’s also one of the daughters of the American Revolution, she informs me from across the booth.
“Back in the battle of Lexington,” says the former Sheryl Harrington, “there were two Jonathan Harringtons, and my family was related to one of them. As such, we have direct bloodlines to the American Revolution.”
That’s astonishing, considering she’s Tulsa’s go-to Muslim every time someone in the media needs one.
“They call you,” I say. “What’s that like?”
“Wicked,” she says. “Just wicked. God forbid, somebody see me when I’m doing something else … like being human. I’m so imperfect.”
Both Jews and Muslims are often seen as guests in Oklahoma, but at least we Jews have the advantage of the hyphen—Judeo-Christian.
Siddiqui calls my attention to the diversity of Tulsa Muslims, who come from more than 40 countries and three Native American tribes. More than half are American born, and a third are African American.
“How can anyone think that we are monolithic in our thinking, politics or practice?” she says.
And, yet, that’s exactly what many people think and why her phone rings when a Moore woman’s throat is slashed by a man yelling in Arabic. The FBI and local police called it workplace violence1—not terrorism—but it doesn’t matter, at least not to State Senator John Bennett (R-Sallisaw):
He said the “silent majority” of Muslims who have not commented on the beheading in Moore, as well as the terrorist acts of the Islamic State group, or ISIL, are “just like Germans” who joined the Nazis when the Nazis came into power.2
“He has legitimacy because he’s an elected official,” Siddiqui says of Bennett, “even though he’s an elected official yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”
Still, Siddiqui is cautious about pushing back, even against the crazies—even, as it turns out, against a freshly re-elected governor who didn’t criticize Bennett for those comments. Siddiqui is a daughter of the American Revolution, sure, but she is also wearing a hijab.
“If I am critical, I’m not patriotic.”
Siddiqui has no—she repeats this often—no problem with the local media in Tulsa.
“In my experience, Tulsa media sees our diversity, our projects with OCCJ. We’re a part of their lives. Further, the leadership over the years in town—police chiefs, mayors, superintendents—we’ve had no trouble whatsoever.”
Although, there is the matter of Tulsa World religion writer Bill Sherman, whose coverage of Islam Siddiqui compares to the national FOX News Network.
“They both use a similar tactic when addressing any issue that in any way relates to Islam,” she says. “They find someone they know, whose credentials are not respected by mainstream Muslims, and then play their distorted perspectives against a respected Muslim scholar or leader as if the two are equals. And when stories are covered by these reporters, the hater always gets the last word.”
Sherman, obviously, sees it another way. By email he told me, “In the case of Rep. John Bennett, I think Oklahoma needs to know what he is really saying and what his opponents (CAIR, etc.) are saying, without my opinion about it. I leave that to the editorial writers. I’m sure that Sheryl Siddiqui, whom I consider a friend, would rather I blast the Bennetts of the world, or not give them a voice. But when I’m quoting her, I’m sure she wants me to be accurate and fair.”
Rabbi Charles Sherman (no relation), formerly of Temple Israel, who has known and worked with Siddiqui for more than two decades, sees a parallel between the two faiths and understands the frustration.
“It is a terrible bind,” he says, “and we have to be on their side. We know what it’s like to be a minority. We are children and grandchildren of those Jews who suffered with the same problems of assimilation that Muslims are going through now. We’ve had a one- or two- generation head start. I think, similarly, there may need to be a reformed Muslim movement, just as there was a reformed Jewish movement. And that can only happen in America.”
“Do I foresee Oklahoma Muslims splitting into congregations defined by level of observance?” asks Siddiqui, referring to the Reformed, Conservative, and Orthodox movements in Judaism.
“God knows. I hope not.
“I think that there’s goodness and spiritual health by having the whole bell-curve represented in each mosque. We know who the worker-bees are, we know who knows more Quran than we do, who drinks or gambles, who really loves kids, who is looking for a spouse, who loves our community so much that they’ll walk out of a meeting and slam the door because the rest of us just don’t get it. That, I can live with.”
And she must live with Bennett, too.
“I denounce those acts of terrorism because I’m Islamic,” she says. “Here’s the chapter, here’s the verse in the Quran. Here’s Muhammad’s teachings on it, but it doesn’t fit the narrative of Muslims as killers, murderers.”
In America, this particular challenge is unique to Muslims.
The work, Siddiqui says, is getting harder—“Emotional, heavy work, personally injurious, because I feel inadequate in such a way that I will never get through to someone with a closed mind. That’s the part that hurts.”
“My family wants me to get out of here as fast I can get out, because there’s never a week they call me, there isn’t some hateful thing going on. I used to have normal weeks. There are no normal weeks anymore.”
Yet, she talks of meeting and working with Tulsans who are the cream of society, the people who care—the visionaries—and the “joy” it gives her. She wants me to know about Allison Moore, director of the Surayya Anne Foundation, a women’s shelter run by Muslim women serving women of all backgrounds, and Zaheer Arastu, the principal of Peace Academy here in Tulsa, running around the gym with kids.
Siddiqui’s outlook for Muslims in Oklahoma is a mixture of hope and despair.
“Okies might find that we’re not teaching the next generation of Muslims what Bennett thinks we are,” she says. “But how do you prepare kids to be successful in a state where they are enemy number one?”