The Muslim woman walked purposely to the microphone, but her voice quavered as she talked to an interfaith crowd gathered at an outreach center run by an Oklahoma City Islamic group.
The woman said her mother questioned the wisdom of attending the gathering because of anti-Muslim sentiments that seem to be sweeping the country.
The woman showed up at the “#HateFreeOKC” forum anyway, and her question for the panel of community leaders capped an in-depth discussion about battling hatred and bigotry in the community.
What, she asked, would the panelists say to people like her who who feel they are increasingly being scrutinized, stereotyped, maligned and threatened because of their faith.
“What would you say to us who are going through it?” she asked, somewhat tearfully.
Her question drew thoughtful responses from the panel at the Oct. 29 gathering hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Oklahoma chapter at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City’s Mercy Mission Building. About 150 people attended.
Adam Soltani, executive director of CAIR-OK, opened the discussion by encouraging the audience to ask questions. “It’s when questions go unasked, that’s when tension builds in our communities,” he said.
He said he and Dr. Carl Rubenstein, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma, and the Rev. Noel Jacobs, the interfaith organization’s vice president, came up with the idea for the forum to answer questions about Islam and to talk about ways to counter events that foster hate, such as anti-Muslim protests that recently were rumored to be planned in Edmond, Oklahoma City and other cities around the country.
With Soltani as moderator, panelists included Rubenstein, Jacobs, Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, Rabbi Vered Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel, Capt. Don Martin with the Oklahoma City Police Department; Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma ACLU; Veronica Laizure, an attorney who serves as civil rights director for CAIR-OK; and the Rev. Aaron Bolerjack, co-pastor of college and community at Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene.
Questions and statements came from people of different faiths.
A Muslim college professor asked what people could do to counter bigotry and hateful statements made by elected officials. A Jewish public school teacher asked how she could be a better ally to her Muslim students who are marginalized as members of a minority faith group. A Christian woman said her friends wondered why moderate Muslims in the U.S. do not speak out against the violence perpetrated by extremist groups like ISIS who say their brutal actions are done in the name of Islam.
The panelists told those gathered that the ways to bigotry are varied, and everyone can help counter hateful speech and actions.
Jacobs, a psychologist, said developing relationships with people of other faiths and backgrounds is a good way to build bridges of friendship and trust among people in the community.
“It’s relationships that move us past barriers,” he said.
Bolerjack agreed, saying that in his role as an adjunct university professor, he has found that there is no substitute for conversation.
Rubenstein said citizens should contact their elected officials and express their displeasure when the leaders make statements that malign groups of people and reinforce stereotypes. He said citizens may ultimately hold elected officials accountable by voting.
Harris said members of the interfaith community must keep showing up and standing up for each other in the face of disrespectful and hateful actions of others.
Enchassi and Laizure shared similar sentiments.
“We have to put faith over fear. We are very happy to stand shoulder to shoulder against hate,” Enchassi said.
Laizure said, “Standing together is the most beautiful thing that we can do.”
Martin said the faith communities’ solidarity helps counter hate. “I’ve always believed a person is strong, but a group of people is unbreakable,” the police captain said.
Keisel said there were probably other people who feared coming to the gathering, besides the woman who expressed such qualms. He said such fears stem from an “un-American” environment that causes people to feel unsafe.
He said the audience’s interfaith diversity provided an antidote for this.
“This is what America looks like. It is the strength of our nation and frankly, it is the strength of our faith communities, knowing that they thrive in such a public square,” Keisel said.
At the event’s end, Soltani urged those gathered to continue to attend and support interfaith forums and activities such as “#HateFreeOKC.”
“And bring somebody else with you,” he said.