Prayers were lifted up for Palestinians, but an Oklahoma City Muslim leader also urged a crowd gathered on Friday to be bold in speaking out against the humanitarian crisis in war-torn Gaza.
“We will be their voice and noone is going to be able to silence us,” Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said at the “Stories From Gaza: Prayers for Palestine” forum.
Enchassi told the crowd of about 400 people that four of his relatives had recently been killed in Gaza. He also said he had received five death threats in the last few days for speaking out against the inhumane treatment of Palestinians in the aftermath of Hamas militants’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war.
“I called these things the way I see them — they do not like that,” Enchassi said. “Silence is violence — we can not be quiet my brothers and sisters. What is happening in the Holy Land is inhumane.”
Attendees soon learned that the imam’s sense of urgency was shared by members of a grassroots movement called Oklahomans Against Occupation. Those gathered for the forum at the Islamic Society’s Mercy Mission Building, 3840 N St. Clair, were told that Oklahomans Against Occupation will hold a “Rally for Peace in Palestine” from noon to 3 p.m. on Oct. 28 at Scissortail Park.
“I’m starting to understand how my parents felt after 9/11 because we are seeing a huge increase in threats against Muslims, against Jews, against people who look like they might be Muslims, like Sikhs,” said Tas, an Oklahomans Against Occupation co-organizer who did not want his last name publicized out of concern for his safety.
The Bengali-American activist said the group’s ultimate objective is to “see the end of the occupation by Israel of the occupied Palestine, Palestinian Territories, and to support a free Palestine.”
“Our ultimate objectives are to empower the voices of Palestinians, Palestinian Americans and their allies, to do a public education campaign here in Oklahoma to let people know there’s a lot of misinformation that’s out there in regards to Palestine and not everybody knows the history of it,” he said. “Lastly, we want to advocate on the municipal level, the state level and the federal level, on the ways that we can get institutions of power to assist us.”
Tas said the movement is not anti-Israel or pro-Hamas.
“We’re really trying to add a sense of nuance to the conversation right now,” he said. “We don’t want people to be afraid to have this conversation.”
Friday’s event was hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Oklahoma chapter, in partnership with the Islamic Society, Masjid Mu’min and the University of Central Oklahoma’s Muslim Student Association.
The evening of prayer and reflection marked the first public forum held by Oklahoma City metro area Muslims since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. Adam Soltani, CAIR-OK executive director, emphasized that the issue at hand was not about religion but about the sanctity of life.
Enchassi said the event was held primaarily to bring attention to the current plight of innocent civilians in Gaza. Like Soltani, he reiteriated that the gathering’s focus was not on religion nor was it anti-Semitic.
“Our brothers with Jewish Voices for Peace were arrested for standing up for the sanctitity of humanity and 150 Jewish organizations recently signed a statement against Islamophobia and anti-Arab prejudice,” the imam said.
Soltani shared moving stories from people in Gaza, particularly that of Heba, a former CAIR-OK community engagement exchange fellow who visited Oklahoma as part of a U.S. Department of State program.
“We just hear the sounds of bombs dropping all around us,” Soltani said, reading from the woman’s correspondence.
He said she was ultimately hospitalized after surviving the destruction of her home when Israel fired rockets into Gaza.
“These are the stories we’re not hearing. These are the stories we need to be sharing with our neighbors,” Soltani said.
Meanwhile, the crowd that was gathered for “Stories from Gaza: Prayers for Palestine” also heard from other speakers who talked about how the Palestinians’ plight in Gaza was similar to the way that Native Americans and Black Americans have been treated in the United States.
Masood Abdul-Haqq, CAIR-OK board chairman and congregational president of Masjid Mu’min in northeast Oklahoma City, shared his perspective as a Black man who sees parallels in how Palestinians are being treated and how Black Americans are treated.
“We recognize a similar struggle … We stand with you,” he said.
The Rev. Chebon Kernell, an indigenous spiritual practitioner and United Methodist minister, said he stood in solidarity with Palestinian people who he called his “relatives.” Kernell described himself as a member of the Muscogee tribe and Wind Clan. He said his ancestors were forced by the U.S. government to leave what eventually became Georgia, Alabama and north Florida and relocate to the Indian Territory that became the state of Oklahoma.
“Make no bones about it, I stand here in solidarity, calling for a cease fire and I, too, weep when I hear about our relatives and what is happening to them,” Kernell said.
“My people were brought here under occupation and I will never ever say we lost because I’m still standing here today. I pray that we will continue to speak the truth.”
Meanwhile, the forum audience included community members like local interfaith leaders.
“We are called to grieve with those who are grieving and that is what we are doing tonight,” said the Rev. Lori Walke, senior minister of Mayflower Congregational Church-UCC.
Joumana Asfour was also in the crowd. The Oklahoma City woman said her Palestinian Christian family was forced off their land in 1948 and she attended Friday’s gathering in search of community and also as a co-organizer of Oklahomans Against Occupation.
“So much of the narrative is against my brothers and sisters who are Muslim, but it’s not about religion,” she said. “My Christian family still lost their house. They still had to leave the land because this is about occupation.”
Asfour said had her grandparents not been forced to leave their home, her family might still be on their land and she would have grown up there.
“The genocide has been going on since 1948,” she said. “Why are we looking away when it’s reoccurring, when we’re in that moment?”