Imad Enchassi, a senior imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, along with more than 150 Oklahoma Muslims, were gathering to meet with lawmakers, discuss issues surrounding their Islamic faith and to pray inside the cavernous rotunda beneath the Capitol dome.
Imad Enchassi crossed the cold Oklahoma state Capitol parking lot Friday morning nearly in tears.
Enchassi, a senior imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, along with more than 150 Oklahoma Muslims, were gathering to meet with lawmakers, discuss issues surrounding their Islamic faith and to pray inside the cavernous rotunda beneath the Capitol dome.
What stopped Enchassi, 50, and made him fight back tears was the sight of about 50 members of the Interfaith Alliance — Christians, Jews and Buddhists — standing in solidarity to welcome them inside.
“I could have stopped right there and wept,” Enchassi, 50, said addressing the crowd before the morning’s events kicked off. “Welcome to the first annual Oklahoma Muslim Day at the state Capitol. We are happy you are here.”
The Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations spent more than a month organizing Friday’s event, but the plan to invite Islamic organizations and mosques from across the state to the Capitol has been years in the making, CAIR-OK Director Adam Soltani said.
More than 40,000 Muslims are estimated to live in Oklahoma.
“We hope this event helps furthers the democratic understanding,” Soltani said. “We are encouraging open communication between our state legislators and hopes that we will have our voices heard.”
The event followed weeks of online protests against the gathering.
Friday, about 20 protesters turned out in subfreezing weather to chant anti-Islamic slogans and wave signs reading “Proud Texas Infidel,” “Islam = Death,” and “Traitors In Our Midst.”
Dozens of Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers maintained order.
Meanwhile, Interfaith Alliance members escorted attendees inside the building past the small group of taunting protesters. Other alliance members formed a human wall between the protesters and event participants, greeting rallygoers with “good morning” and “have a great day.”
‘You must engage’
Inside, in a large, third-floor meeting room, panels discussed racial profiling, First Amendment rights and religion in schools.
State Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, was one of the few state representatives in attendance. The Legislature typically breaks for the weekend on Thursdays, which means most lawmakers are gone from the Capitol on Fridays. Shelton discussed how more Muslims needed to meet with their state representatives.
“You must engage to let them know you exist,” Shelton said. “We have some ignorant people in the Legislature. If you don’t like what they are doing, it’s time to run against them.”
Anti-Islamic rhetoric, like that from Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw, who called the religion a cancer that needed to be cut out of America, furthers the need to learn how state government works, Soltani said.
At one point during the event, fliers critical of CAIR that included Bennett’s House office letterhead were being circulated to attendees.
As a Muslim call to prayer began, a protester stepped from the crowd, shouting the Lord’s Prayer but was quickly escorted away by two state troopers. The woman was not arrested, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
‘Here to learn’
Recent similar Muslim rallies at the Capitols in Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina all met with confrontation.
Amera Hammani traveled from Tulsa for the event with her school, Peace Academy, an all-Islamic high school.
The 16-year-old, dressed in a white hijab, was taking pictures of her schoolmates from a balcony in the rotunda.
“I feel like it’s really important to be here because of the negativity toward my religion right now,” she said. “We want to be here to learn about how we can better be heard and to show that we belong.”
Enchassi wrapped up the day with a sermon and a reminder that Islam and other religions can stand and support one another, a lesson he was reminded of on his walk across the parking lot.
“We want to assure you that we are not a cancer,” Enchassi said. “We are a vital part of this society.”