Oklahoma Muslims say they feel discriminated against and are criticized for radical-Islamic terrorist attacks around the globe, such as the November attacks in Paris lead by ISIS.
Asim Ali is wrapping up his first semester of college at OU and said he hasn’t felt any discrimination against his Islamic faith. The biochemistry freshman said Islamophobia has played a small role in his life, but mostly during high school.
“Honestly, on this campus, I haven’t faced any Islamophobia. But in the first year of high school, it was pretty bad,” he said.
Ali said classmates would call him a terrorist and joke about it.
“One of my friends — he was one of those guys who called me a terrorist. I went to the authorities, the principal, and I talked about it. And then that kid and I just had a long chat about him calling me those things (and) why he did it and why he shouldn’t do it,” he said.
After the talk, Ali said he became friends with the classmate.
Building relationships with people can combat Islamophobia, Adam Soltani, executive director of Council of American-Islamic Relations, said.
“We can talk as much as we want in the media. We can write (government offices), and those will reach a certain audience, but we really have to build relationships,” he said.
“When you sit down and break bread or have a meal with someone, that builds a relationships that allows them to say, ‘Hey, I know a guy named Muhammad, and he’s a Muslim; and I won’t say that all Muslims are the same because I’ve built this relationship with someone,’” Soltani said.
Islamophobia is something that has been around for some time, Soltani said.
“I don’t think it has appeared all of the sudden. I grew up in the 1980s, and I think it stems from xenophobia, the fear of the unknown or the fear of people who are different,” he said.
“The most offensive thing I’ve heard … is to be told to go back home, because I was born and raised in Kansas, and I don’t want to go back there,” Soltani said.
“People laugh when I tell them that, but the truth is it’s very offensive to tell somebody to go back home when this is their home,” he said.
Ali said if people took time to read the Quran and talked about it with other muslims, they would get a better idea about Islam.
“That’s the same thing for Muslims and Christianity. If we read the Bible, or the Torah or even the Hindu scriptures, then we could probably understand those types of people more and not generalize so much,” he said.
Ali and his twin brother, Atif, were born in the U.S., but his parents migrated from India around 20 years ago, he said.
“We prayed a lot everyday when we were younger, and our mom taught us the Quran. It was pretty important in our childhood,” Ali said.
He said to not assume Muslims hate others who are not Muslims.
“Don’t assume anything about anybody until you get to know them. Get to know them as a person first, and that will probably clear up some negative stigmas you might have about Islam or probably any other culture,” he said.
Islamophobia is not easy to deal with, Soltani said.
“It’s on multiple levels. You got the social media … You’ve also got things like Representative John Bennett from Sallisaw, (who) went on a tirade and verbally attacked the Muslim community. Those things just catch on and trend on social media, and I think Muslims feel the pressure of that,” he said.
“After the Paris attack, Muslims just go on this heightened sense of awareness, and they kind of take extra precautions, and they’re also scared and fearful for their own safety and security of their family,” Soltani said.
Sheryl Siddiqui, chair and spokesperson of the Islamic Council of Oklahoma, said there’s no question about the stigmatization of Muslims in Oklahoma.
“People in leadership positions are saying things about Muslims. We’ve got presidential candidates, we’ve got state legislators, we’ve got a governor who doesn’t defend the rights of her own people — there’s no question that there are things said against Muslims nationally and at the state level,” Siddiqui said.
With that being said, the majority of Oklahomans see Muslims as fellow citizens and don’t cause much trouble to the Muslim community, she said.
“(After the Paris attacks), Muslims, specifically were leary and anticipated getting some slack when they were out in public. That’s not really what’s happening. In the workplaces, Muslims are still living the American dream,” she said.
“Our neighbors and coworkers have not given us any trouble at all, and many of them are supportive,” Siddiqui said.
She said the council is focusing on helping mosques in Oklahoma reach out to the public.
“We had our first-ever Open Mosque Day, where all the mosques that participate within our council opened mosques on the same day,” she said.
She said the council’s initiative is to improve communications and collaborate on issues that affect Muslims who attend mosques in the state.
“By collaborating together, we can do better public relations and get the word out, and we had people who had never been to a mosque before come to every single mosque, so that was a great experience,” Siddiqui said.