Several local Muslim leaders recently held a meeting with Muslim high school students, and the Paris terrorist attacks quickly became a topic of conversation.
Adam Soltani, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the gathering was a planned session of a CAIR-sponsored program for high school students. But it came at a good time, because the students needed to talk about anti-Muslim/anti-Islam rhetoric bandied about in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, he said.
Soltani said most recently, such rhetoric has resurfaced with the news that law enforcement officials believe at least one of the suspects in a mass shooting Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Wednesday, two attackers opened fire on a banquet at a social services center for the disabled in San Bernardino, killing multiple people and sending police on a manhunt for suspects.
“We need peace and unity right now,” Soltani said.
“The actions of one or two or a group of people should never represent the whole and yet, time and time again, it is perceived that the criminal and un-Islamic actions of a few represent the whole, which is never the case.”
The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris occurred in or near six popular Paris venues and included a hostage-taking massacre of 89 people at a concert hall, shootings at several cafes, and suicide bombings near France’s national stadium. Three teams of Islamic State extremists carried out the coordinated gun-and-suicide bombing attacks. The Paris attacks killed 130 people and injured more than 300.
Soltani said his Oklahoma City CAIR office received several threatening phone calls and several vitrolic messages shared through social media in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks. He said the phone calls and hateful messages stemmed from some people’s tendency to “lump” all Muslims together with ISIS extremists who claim to be guided by Islam.
He said this generalization and stereotyping of Muslims is “misguided and unfair,” and recent anti-Muslim remarks made by Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson have “unfortunately fed into the animosity and hatred” of Muslims.
“The finger gets pointed at us even though we ourselves condemn ISIS, and we have time and time again,” Soltani said.
“It scares me that there are candidates who believe Muslims are less citizens than anyone else,” he said.
Soltani said the local Muslim community has countered these negative reactions by continuing to condemn terrorist attacks. Also, he said CAIR hosted an Interfaith Prayer Vigil for the Paris terrorist attack victims at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City’s mosque two days after the attacks.
“We had about 150 people come to that. For an event that we planned in less than 24 hours, that was great, and a majority of the people who came were not Muslim.”
Soltani said support from other faith groups has been felt in other ways over the last few weeks.
He said members of one Stillwater church took the time to visit a mosque near Oklahoma State University the Sunday after the Paris attacks. The Rev. Sally Houck posted a picture on social media of members of Salem Lutheran Church, where she is pastor, standing outside the mosque and holding signs spelling out the message “We Stand With Our Mosque.”
“I’ve seen more positivity in the past weeks. People are willing to stand by the Muslim community,” Soltani said.
Houck said the idea for the impromptu visit came from a church member. She said Salem church members had established a friendly relationship with the Stillwater mosque over the years. Houck said the church initially invited members of the mosque to speak to an adult class about Islam, then women at the church and mosque began to gather for interfaith luncheons at their respective houses of worship. Church members also attended an Iftar dinner at the mosque during Ramadan and have visited the mosque for open house events, Houck said.
“We feel that interfaith understanding is especially important in these tense times, and our groups have a cordial, friendly relationship,” Houck said. “Because we get to know one another, we can bear witness that Muslims in America are faithful, peaceful, hospitable neighbors, and that there are Christians who respect and embrace their community as a part of an America where freedom of religion is truly practiced.”
Backlash against refugees
Meanwhile, Soltani said he and other Muslim leaders continue to be troubled by another aspect of the anti-Muslim backlash — opposition across America to Syrian refugees being allowed to enter the country.
Sheryl Siddiqui, spokeswoman for a coalition of mosques and Islamic organizations called the Islamic Council of Oklahoma, shared similar concerns, saying many Muslim refugees also are victims of the ISIS extremists.
“Law-abiding Muslims feel just as threatened by these terrorists as their neighbors of other faiths. ISIS targets Muslims more often than others. ISIS’ actions have created refugees by the million,” Siddiqui said.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, many governors across the U.S. have urged President Barack Obama to suspend the refugee program, at least temporarily, and some have claimed the legal authority to block the federal resettlement efforts unilaterally.
“We should not let fear stop us from doing the right thing — stepping up in the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation,” Siddiqui said when asked what she thought about the governors’ actions.
“As people of faith, helping the homeless, the destitute and refugees are acts of faith and worship. Many traditions call this behavior the Golden Rule.”
Soltani said he remains hopeful that the anti-Muslim rhetoric that seemed to increase after the Paris attacks will lessen as people join together across faith lines to battle the extremist threat.
“My one hope is that as a country and a people, we can find a solution to the barbaric and inhumane groups who continue to terrorize our world,” he said. “We have to work together as people of all different faiths and backgrounds to find a solution.”
Contributing: The Associated Press