The athletes, drenched in sweat from the summer heat, made a beeline to the containers of water on the sidelines of the football field.
Two football players talked to each other while fellow team members at Del City High School sought to relieve the near 100-degree temperatures with a cool drink.
Ismail Calhoun remembers his teammates’ curious looks as he and his twin brother Isaiah refrained from slaking their thirst.
“They were saying, ‘It’s 100 degrees out here! Why aren’t you all drinking water?” Calhoun said, chuckling a bit.
“It was an opportunity to educate people about Islam.”
The Oklahoma City University law student, now 25, told the story to illustrate how his Muslim faith affected his relationships and experiences in high school.
Calhoun said people seemed shocked once they knew that his family was Muslim but, rather than express disdain, they typically wanted to know more about his faith traditions. That summer day on the football field, he and his brother explained that they were fasting from food and drink from sunup to sundown in observance of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.
These days, Calhoun is busy pursuing his law degree at Oklahoma City University’s School of Law. He and his twin each were awarded OCU’s prestigious Clara Luper Scholarship and they earned their bachelor’s degrees at the university in 2013. Calhoun said he majored in philosophy and political science while his brother majored in biomed (biomedical), intent to become a doctor.
He said his mother has told him to be cautious and aware because of evolving developments in American society. Tensions between police and black communities have heightened and, at the same time, anti-Muslim rhetoric seems to have increased.
“Just yesterday, my mother says not only do I have to worry about being a black man in America with all the police brutality, but I have to worry about being a Muslim in America, too. Two strikes,” he said, shaking his head.
He said his faith has played a role in some positive things in his life, thus far. However, he said he’s had some experiences that saddened him.
On the positive side, he and his brother successfully sought to start a Muslim Student Association on campus with the establishment of a prayer room for all faith traditions among their projects.
“Our mission was really to combat Islamophobia and really educate the student body and the community about what Islam really is,” he said.
OCU President Robert Henry was very helpful in this pursuit, even allowing the fledgling organization to meet in his home several times. The prayer room project took root and it was opened the semester after the Calhoun brothers graduated.
Calhoun said they wanted to have a place where people of faith could pray and perhaps have discussions about religion in a setting designed just for such a purpose at the Methodist-affiliated university.
He said he had routinely talked about his faith in conversations with his fellow college freshmen. Growing up attending the Masjid Mu’min, 1322 NE 23, he said he felt comfortable discussing religion with his peers.
He said his mosque was a sacred space and a haven where he and his family established longtime friendships and connections with their Islamic faith.
“This is where I grew up. This is home,” Calhoun said after giving a brief presentation at the mosque as part of an interfaith youth tour.
Ironically, it was his chattiness and openness about his faith that caused a few people he considered friends to turn away from him. Calhoun said when it became openly known that he and his brother — then sophomores — were trying to start the Muslim student group, people he had developed friendships with his first year on campus began to distance themselves from him.
“I think this was the most hurtful part. My freshman year, we were great friends and then you find out I’m Muslim and now I’m just this different person altogether?” he said. “I guess they thought I was a terrorist and all this other nonsense. I don’t know.”
Calhoun said he dealt with the snubs as best as he could by cultivating his other friendships and creating new ones.
“I’m cordial with them all now. Lessons learned.”
His love life also was affected by his faith tradition.
At the prompting of his current girlfriend Auziah Antwine, Calhoun said he and his high school sweetheart ultimately broke up because she couldn’t reconcile the interfaith relationship with her Christian faith. He said she spent a large part of the last of their five-year romance trying to get him “saved” and converted to Christianity.
“She felt that we were not ‘equally yoked,’ “ he said, referring to 2 Corinthians 6:14 in the Bible which warns Christians against mismatched relationships with unbelievers.
Another collegiate friend, a female, invited him to lunch one day and when he got there, he found that she had also invited her father, a Christian pastor, who proceeded to try to get him to reject Islam.
“It was an ambush,” Calhoun said.
Was he offended by these encounters?
No, because he recognized that each person was well-meaning.
“He refuses to victimize himself and make those other people out to be bad people because he’s not a victim and they’re not bad people. The whole thing was about lack of knowledge and misunderstanding,” said Antwine.
Calhoun agreed with his girlfriend.
“They felt like they were helping me. I guess their idea is that Islam is not the right religion but I don’t hate them. I was a little hurt,” he said.
Antwine, who is a Christian, said she grew angry with Calhoun recently when he was driving and slightly exceeded the speed limit. She said she doesn’t want him to speed nor does she want him to draw unwanted attention to himself from law enforcement.
Antwine, who also is studying law at OCU, said she had an encounter with police herself that made her realize how today’s cultural climate could be problematic for both blacks and Muslims.
She said she wore a hijab, a traditional head scarf worn by many Muslim women, to give a report on a predominantly Muslim country as part of an undergraduate assignment for a class on politics in the Middle East class. Driving from OCU back to her east metro home, she realized she didn’t know how to cut on the lights of her mother’s car which she was driving. Since it was twilight, she struggled to figure out the vehicle’s assorted levers and buttons but she was pulled over by a Valley Brook police officer before that happened.
Antwine said she told the officer she was trying to get the lights on and he immediately put her in the back of his police car. What he blurted into his radio next troubled her to the extreme.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this Muslim African lady. I think she might be a terrorist.’ He literally said that! That’s the moment I realized I was still wearing the hijab,” said Antwine, who is of Nigerian descent.
A little frightened, Antwine said she felt compelled to point out the stereotyping behind his statement.
“I said, ‘Sir, there’s so many things wrong with that statement you just said. Number one, I’m not even Muslim, but even if I was …’ “
She said the officer kept her in the back of his car for about 45 minutes, checking to see if she was a flight risk, where she learned “good English,” her car registration and repeatedly asked about insurance verification, which she had already provided.
Antwine said she felt the experience gave her a bird’s-eye view of how Calhoun and other Muslims may be treated by non-Muslims who see them as threatening.
“It was a humbling experience,” she said.
Hearing the story again, Calhoun shook his head.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of Islamophobia and miseducation out there. It’s important that people know that Islam is a religion of peace and Muslims are supposed to be containers of that peace.”