Top Islamic faith leaders in Oklahoma City believe their lives are in jeopardy following the beheading of a Vaughan Foods employee last week in Moore.
Earlier this week, Imad Enchassi, senior Imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City and chairman of Islamic Studies at Oklahoma City University, turned over four specific threats to the FBI. One message threatened the beheading of Adam Soltani, executive director of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“It is scary and disconcerting, but I believe in my faith, my community and standing up for what’s right,” Soltani said. “I’m going to continue doing what I’ve been doing in showing the true image of Islam.”
Soltani admitted that he and other Islamic leaders in Oklahoma City have taken extra security precautions since the threats began.
Another threat warned that “judgment day is coming soon” for Oklahoma City Muslims and a third message showed a photograph of a gun with the words “We’re ready for you.”
“We take all of these seriously,” Enchassi said. “But on a positive note, we have had overwhelming support from regular Oklahomans, civil liberties groups and interfaith organizations. Many people in Oklahoma are on our side and do not wish us any harm.”
FBI Special Agent Martinus McConnell said he could not comment on the threats, but acknowledged the agency is working in a supporting role with the Moore police, which is heading the investigation into last week’s attack at Vaughan Foods.
Enchassi described the current situation as the “perfect storm that climaxed with the beheading of the victim in Moore.” A majority of Americans already were incensed by the beheadings of two American journalists in the Middle East by the extremist group ISIS. That anger hit new heights in Oklahoma after the suspect in the Moore case was identified as a Muslim and a practicing member of the Islamic faith.
Alton Nolen, 30, arrived Wednesday at the Cleveland County jail under heavy guard after being dismissed from the OU Medical Center where he had been recuperating from a gunshot wound suffered after killing a co-worker at Vaughn Foods.
Nolen was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder in the death of Colleen Hufford, 54, and assault and battery with a deadly weapon in the attack on Traci Johnson, 43. He faces a third count of assault with a deadly weapon in connection with threats to Mark Vaughan, the chief operating officer and a reserve deputy, who shot Nolen last week to stop the attacks.
Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn has not said if he will seek the death penalty against Nolen, a man neighbors and colleagues described as “odd” and “quiet.” Still, others who knew Nolen said they were “totally shocked” at his involvement in the case.
Soltani said Nolen is not a good example of those who adhere to the Islam faith.
“It’s been very unfortunate that this happened. Our biggest concern is that after years of civic engagement that this man who is a criminal has become representative of the faith through all of the media reports and social media,” he said. “But his actions are the exact antithesis of the our faith.”
The beheading hasn’t hurt CAIR’s alliances with social justice and interfaith organization in a “bad light” with other Oklahomans, Soltani said.
Enchassi said he has witnessed anger toward Oklahoma Muslims and the Islamic faith on previous occasions, but none of those instances reached this heightened level of hate and prejudice.
“From Day 1 of the Moore beheading, my mind has gone back to the Oklahoma City bombing when people initially thought it was Muslims who were responsible for that. But in a day and a half, Timothy McVeigh was caught and the fears went away,” he recalled.
Other notable cases that sparked anti-Muslim sentiments are the 9/11 tragedy and the passage and repeal of a ban allowing Sharia Law in Oklahoma courts.
Despite the death threats aimed at Muslims, Enchassi and other Islamic leaders continue to say that Nolen’s actions were that of “an insane man.”
“Those kinds of people are extremely unstable whether they associate themselves with any faith, Islam or otherwise,” he said. “I saw his Facebook profile and a photo of himself in front of my mosque, but I have never seen him. We don’t know him. He has never been to any of our classes. We believe he acted with a really insane and confused personality.”
While Islamic leaders like Enchassi and Soltani preach that Islam is a religion of peace, at least one Oklahoma lawmaker promotes the idea that Islam advocates violence against non-believers.
State Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw) has publicly said the Islamic faith “is a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.” In a previous Facebook post, Bennett wrote that people should be wary of Muslim Americans
“The ultra-right wing, the media and some (state) officials who have unsophisticated views at things have linked all of this to terrorism and the Islamic faith. It is a war of words brought on by Mr. Bennett,” Enchassi said. “He’s a self-proclaimed Muslim expert but I don’t understand any of his logic.”
Gov. Mary Fallin said in a prepared release earlier this week that she has communicated with law enforcement agencies and Oklahoma’s Department of Homeland Security to ensure a thorough investigation is conducted. At times, however, her rhetoric became inflammatory.
“The attack at Vaughan Foods was an act of cowardice, brutality and barbarism,” Fallin said. “The perpetrator of that attack will be brought to justice and face the full weight of the law. The investigation is ongoing and it is unclear at this time whether the crime was an act of terrorism, workplace violence or a gruesome combination of both.”
UPDATE (8:40 p.m. Oct. 1, 2014): Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn announced late Wednesday that he will seek the death penalty against Alton Nolen, 30, who is accused of killing a Vaughan Foods employee and attacking two others last Thursday. Mashburn said he made the decision after conferring with the victim’s family. Nolen is accused of beheading a co-worker after being suspended from his job for making racial remarks.
A preliminary hearing conference has been scheduled for Oct. 14. Nolen is being held in the Cleveland County Jail without bail.