I remember when I converted to Islam at the tender age of 17 ― a student at Edmond Santa Fe High School surrounded by peers who would find it hard to understand the new faith I embraced with its strict rules regarding no pork, no alcohol and absolutely no dating. The Oklahoma Muslim community was relatively small at the time and completely insular. Interfaith outreach, bridge building and public representation were all foreign to my new faith community, leaving me feeling shy and apprehensive about sharing my newfound way with others.
Fast-forward two and a half decades, and the religious landscape in Oklahoma is far different for my children from what it was for me as a young adult.
The Oklahoma Muslim community has grown exponentially since the late 1990s with the opening of several full-time Islamic schools in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, including Mercy School Institute and Oklahoma Islamic Academy; the expansion of Islamic centers in Stillwater, Edmond and Norman; and the opening of new Islamic centers in places like northeast and south Oklahoma City and Lawton. Not to mention the plethora of Muslim-led nonprofit organizations focusing on social justice, education, food insecurity, health equity and much more.
No longer is Islam a footnote in the history book that will one day be authored about Oklahoma; rather, it has become a pillar of what it means to be part of our state and a true reflection of the Oklahoma Standard. Muslims are active in almost every industry in our state, including politics, the media and sports. The frequency by which I meet new people who already have Muslim friends, colleagues or neighbors is increasing regularly, and despite our small numbers, people are taking notice.
Even the highest echelons of our state have taken the time to recognize the contributions of Oklahoma’s Muslims over the last decade. From Gov. Kevin Stitt’s visits with Muslims at their annual Capitol Day to Mayor David Holt’s Eid messages commemorating the largest holidays in the Islamic calendar. Long gone are the days in which the only elected officials we heard speak about Islam and Muslims did so through the filter of hatred and bigotry.
Despite all the progress, the shadow of Islamophobia still looms large over our state. Hate may not be burning as vigorously as it was immediately after the tragedy of 9/11, but it still exists. Even in a post-Trump era, we have seen hate crimes against Muslims, vandalism of Islamic centers, and FBI or law enforcement overreach. The undeniable fear remains that Islamophobia will again rear its ugly head and push Muslims to the fringes of society where, arguably, Islamophobes want them to stay.
How do we move past Islamophobia toward a religiously pluralistic society that celebrates our diversity as a means to unite instead of divide?
This question led us at CAIR Oklahoma to update and revise our Guide to Islam and Muslims in Oklahoma.
We recognize that education is the foundation upon which trust is built. Our society has long feared “the other,” and media and political figures portray that which we do not understand as uncivilized, alarming and a threat to the “American way of life.”
We also know that the only way to combat hate is with love, and the only way to combat ignorance is with knowledge.
This guide is our gift to our fellow Oklahomans. A means by which you can broaden your understanding of our little world we call Oklahoma. A manner in which you can enrich your life by learning how others choose to live theirs. A method by which to gain appreciation for a new and different perspective.
It is our hope that you will take advantage of this opportunity to construct the building blocks of hope through knowledge. The future is not built upon our past mistakes but by learning from our mistakes, of which ignorance and fear are plentiful.
The only question remains: Will you embrace this gift and share it with others?
Adam Soltani is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Oklahoma Chapter. The Guide to Islam and Muslims in Oklahoma at https://tinyurl.com/yc2vywk2