Farid and Malaka Elyazgi abhorred the narrative that surrounded their Islamic religion in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
The metro-area couple knew Islam to be a religion of peace, love, humility and service, but they knew that many non-Muslim Americans thought Islam was more of a hate-driven and violent faith that fueled the terrorists who killed more than 3,000 people 20 years ago.
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The pair and other local Muslims said they continue to counter misinformation and anti-Islam rhetoric on the anniversary of 9/11, with education and a certain awareness that they are living examples of the true nature of their faith.
“What happened on 9/11 was against all the teachings I believe in Islam. Any decent human being would reject something like this,” said Farid Elyazgi, president of the Islamic Council of Oklahoma, a coalition of mosques across the state.
“It was a calling for us to be more involved, talking, having more open houses. We had to explain and educate and unite as a teaching moment.”
He said and his wife already had been doing that when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred. They had already been out in the community, serving on boards and councils as active community members. He went to churches when he was asked to speak about his religion. The terrorist attacks seemed to compel other local Muslims to do the same, if they weren’t already.
“Some people say this is a clash of civilizations, that Muslims cannot coexist here,” Elyazgi said. “But we are here in a positive way to show what Muslims are all about. There is more common ground than what you think. There are differences, but the differences don’t mean I have to hate you.”
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Has the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan threatened to heighten anti-Muslim rhetoric at a time when such sentiments are already bandied about?
Yes, said Adam Soltani, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-Oklahoma chapter.
“Leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, that was one of our concerns, that the same Islamophobic rhetoric that stems from ignorance and misinformation is creeping up,” Soltani said. “The talks about Sharia Law, terrorism, jihad, all these things, and so yes, it’s definitely a concern.”
He pointed to a recent video posted to the Oklahoma Republican Party’s Facebook page that features party Chairman John Bennett discussing his alarm about Afghan refugees coming to the state. Bennett could not be reached for comment regarding his video message.
In the video, among other things, Bennett said federal government officials were lying about thoroughly vetting Afghan refugees approved to come to America. Bennett, who has said he is a minister in Muldrow, also appeared to link students at Oklahoma Islamic schools to the Taliban by saying that the students were studying the same textbook as the group whose regime currently holds power in Afghanistan.
Soltani said he considered Bennett’s recent rhetoric his most aggressive attack on Muslims since the former state legislator became state Republican Party chairman.
“John Bennett is ramping up his attacks on Muslims again. It’s absolutely inappropriate,” Soltani said.
“The point is, this is all coming together at a bad time, if you will, because of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which is really the time we need to come together and not rehash the same hate that we’ve been dealing with for so long.”
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Soltani said the way to combat negative stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslims is through continued education — on 9/11 and all the other days of the year. He said he released a video about the 9/11 anniversary, and CAIR-OK sent Oklahoma schools a resource book on how to teach about 9/11.
The guide book was developed, in part, due to the findings of a recent survey of Oklahoma Muslim students. The survey revealed that large numbers of Muslim students reported being verbally harassed, mocked or physically abused because of their faith or ethnicity. Soltani said the resource guide also was distributed because CAIR offices typically take complaints from students and their families about anti-Muslim bullying and anti-Islam rhetoric at schools each year around the 9/1l anniversary.
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“My overall message is we need to spread love and peace,” he said. “I think the biggest focus is continued education and to basically stay the course as we have for years as a Muslim organization.”
Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, agreed.
“What we learned from history is that hate is relentless,” he said. “Hate isn’t laughable, but it is almost laughable and predicable that this would happen. We always repel hate with love, and we always battle negative misinformation with education.”
Enchassi said in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, Muslim Americans stand against those who do violence in the name of Islam and those non-Muslim who dislike the Islamic faith.
“We took a stand against hate, whether that hate comes from co-religionist or people who have ill feelings against our religion.”
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‘A different representation’
Farid and Malaka Elyazgi’s daughter, Houda, said her parents instilled a sense of pride in their community in her and her siblings during her childhood in Norman. She said that pride and a desire to give back and serve others has been interwoven into the fabric of her life and career as vice president of client strategy for Oklahoma City-based Saxum advertising agency.
Houda Elyazgi said she wears a hijab, a head scarf that many Muslim women wear as a sign of their faith. She said she realizes that she is easily identifiable as a Muslim, and she understands this gives her an opportunity to educate and build bridges of understanding with people who don’t know anything about Muslims except what they may see in the media surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I hate to use this term, but the terrorists hijacked our religion,” she said.
The businesswoman said she remembered feeling horrible about the terrorist attacks on so many levels.
“On top of that grief and anger and all those emotions, it was compounded by the fact that this was a group of individuals who were breaking so many sacred laws of Islam,” she said.
“I immediately felt a desire to show a different representation of the faith.”
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She said she meets people who have never met a Muslim, and that she often is asked if she is an American citizen when she goes to the voting booth. One of her big concerns is the stereotypes and anti-Muslim hate being spewed on the internet and in books written by people who do not like Muslims but profess to know all about them.
“Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming amount of content and misinformation about Islam that lives online,” she said.
Noel Jacobs, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma, said it shouldn’t be entirely up to Muslims to reach out beyond the boundaries of faith. Like Farid Elyazgi, he said the Muslim faith community has held various educational seminars, open house events and charitable activities, and the interfaith community has had similar events to bring people of different faiths together to forge new relationships of understanding and awareness.
“Engagement and time spent in relationship together is what changes things. It’s when people spend time with people they don’t know,” Jacobs said.
Houda Elyazgi agreed.
She said one recent incident highlighted the need for continued efforts to educate and counter the negative stereotypes about Muslims.
She said one Saturday morning, she was walking into a doughnut shop with two young relatives. They encountered a man who was wearing a firearm on a holster. She said the man made eye contact with her and deliberately reached down to pat his gun “as if to say you better not try anything.”
“I wanted to signal to him that you don’t have to be afraid of me,” Elyazgi said.
A current Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum board member, she said the experience reminded her that it’s still important to try to educate the community-at-large about Islam — on the 9/11 anniversary and beyond.
“The reality is, it’s important to be present. It’s critical work,” she said.
“We have to work together to fight any sort of injustice.”