Islam at the Oklahoma State Capitol

The Muslim community in Oklahoma, like other minorities in the state, hasn’t always felt secure in their homes and places of worship; they decided to spend a day at the capitol meeting with representatives, holding workshops, and sharing their faith in a public prayer.

The 18 degree morning promising snow was met with protest. A man in a hoodie, projecting his voice above the heckling and the jeers:

Muslims want Islam to dominate this country! [loud cheers, and “hear hear!”] We don’t want a Muslim, or the Lucifer in the White House [others concurring, “No! No!”, drowning him out, as another man nearby starts in] Allah is Satan! Mohammad is in Hell! Allah is Satan! You’d all be killed by Jihadi John. Jihadi John would chop your heads off. Allah is Satan. Mohammad is in Hell.”

James Gilles from Indiana, holding a 5-f0ot-tall, slender black sign which read “JESUS CHRIST, God manifested in the flesh, CRUCIFIED, RESURRECTED, And Coming Again Has a Pressure Cooker (The Lake of Fire) For Every Dead MUSLIM!” was also yelling, calmly, in a weighty monotone: “Mohammad was a pedophile. His favorite wives were only 6 and 9 years old. You have blood on your hands!”

In contrast, smiling, snuggled close, Marty and Amy Monn, a mother and daughter duo, were there from the local Interfaith Alliance with supporters in equal or greater numbers to the anti-Islamic protesters. They formed two lines near the entrance to the capitol building, allowing the Muslim conference attendees to walk between them as they sang “Amazing Grace” and other hymns.

For the first hours of the day, the protesters did not enter the building.

Inside the capitol building, a Muslim Day attendee drinks water. Painting: Wilson Hurley’s “A Storm Passing Northwest of Anadarko.” Photos: Randy R. Potts

Stacy Pierce drove three hours from Locust Grove, Oklahoma, because of a song the Marine Corps sings about the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli, because of Glenn Beck, because of a struggle over there coming home to roost. His soft brown eyes matched his gentle voice, each sentence ending with an “alright?,” as much a reassurance as a call to arms. What happened in Dearborn, what happened in England, he said, can’t be allowed to happen here.

I don’t have a problem with them learning what our government is about. What I fear [counter protesters begin to sing Amazing Grace] is what Islam does, they try to take over the culture, they try to dominate the culture, it’s been proven historically over and over and over again, alright? They did this in England. Started out just like this. Observing government, alright?

Andrew Stodghill, originally from Tulsa, converted to Islam 4 years ago when he was 20. Most of his family still doesn’t know; his mother, though no longer worried he’ll become a terrorist, worries about his conservative uncles. Andrew converted a month before Oklahomans voted by a 70% margin to ban sharia law, in 2010; his memory of his first visit to the local mosque is cameras and questions and protest signs. He’d been determined to keep the secret from his mother for the first six months:

I wanted to see if they would notice any change in my behavior. Before, I used to party quite a bit, you know, do the college thing, stay out til 4 or 5 in the morning, you know, debauchery, and so I wanted to cut that out of my life and I wanted to see if they’d notice a difference.

Instead, a month in, his mother made pork chops one night and broke down crying in the kitchen when he said he wasn’t hungry.

Protester holds a sign in front of the Oklahoma State Capitol building. Photos: Randy R. Potts

Walking up, he looked like George Washington, but though he refused to give his name he said he was dressed as a “Minute Man” and he was here to protest Islam in the United States. He told the reporter in front of me, looking at all of us: “it’s like what the gays did. Act nice. Infiltrate. Muslims are the same.” As he was talking I heard behind me, from another protester, “Whore! Mohammad was a pedophile! We don’t want your sharia law” — a woman in hijab, the object of the taunts, was trying to enter the capitol building. “Shame! Shame!” shouted other protesters; taking pictures, one of them shoved me and pushed his poster in my face, blocking my camera: “aren’t you here to be seen?” I asked. “No!” The several dozen protesters, at least half from out of state, and the counter-protesters from Oklahoma City interfaith group of an equal or greater number, could be distinguished from each other by their dress: counter-protesters in long, wool coats, fur hats, ear muffs, knitted caps and REI coats; protesters in camouflage, coveralls, American flags, combat boots. Clothing announcing privilege, security, comfort; clothing suggesting a battle ahead. Signs about 9/11. Signs about Jesus. Sign: “EVERY REAL MUSLIM IS A JIHADIST.” One protester in an Anonymous mask, who came to the protest in the early afternoon, was there, her sign said, to support equality; she spent most of the time hurling expletives at the protesters.

Muslim Day attendee listens to Adam Soltani of CAIR speak in the main gallery. Photos: Randy R Potts

Jeers, taunts, anger at the “Islamization of America,” but the protest was peaceful, if hurling “whore!” and “Mohammad was a pedophile!” at teenage Muslim girls walking up in hijab can be described as peaceful.

Window looking south out the front of the capitol building. Sign, foreground: “EVERY REAL MUSLIM IS A JIHADIST.” Photos: Randy R. Potts

Inside the capitol, teens from Peace Academy in Tulsa. Bishar, with his walker, 16 years old: 8 years in Syria, 8 in Oklahoma. Starla and Amera, juniors in high school, were both born in the U.S. Starla: “I feel like the majority of people are very accepting and open-minded, so we don’t feel any big threat, there is the occasional shout out or dirty look or something like that but honestly I think many cultures experience that.” As the first female walked towards the capitol building earlier I’d heard “oh there’s our first real live Muslim woman! Aloha snackbar! Go home!”

Teen girl and boy attendees inside the capitol before the first conference. Photos: Randy R. Potts

Just before the 2:00 pm Jummah, or Friday prayer, preparations were made in the main gallery on the second floor. In the gallery above, a group of protesters were having what appeared to be a heated discussion with the capitol police: voices raised, hands waving. As the rugs were laid out, Adam Soltani, local head of CAIR, the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations, and Imam Imad Enchassi, whose mosque sits on the western edge of the Oklahoma City, met in the background.

At left: Adam Soltani, leader of the Oklahoma City chapter of CAIR, and Imam Imad Enchassi. Photos: Randy R. Potts

For a moment, as the prayer service began, all was quiet and still, and then, the lilting call to prayer.

Men and women, praying separately, at Jummah in the capitol building. Photos: Randy R. Potts

Less than a minute into the service a protester interrupted, walking several feet in front of me and loudly reciting the Lord’s Prayer; my iPhone camera caught most of it, the video retweeted hundreds of times:

Oklahoma’s oldest mosque, Masjid Mu’Min on 23rd Street just blocks from the capitol building and now being rebuilt, was founded in the 1960s by the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad; when he passed on the congregation then affirmed membership in the worldwide faith of Islam. Across town, a newer mosque is led by Palestinian Imam Enchassi, who was born in Lebanon and came to the U.S. at 17.

Moments before he conducted the prayer service, Enchassi stood waiting in front of a large painting commissioned to represent Oklahoma; it appeared to me that several shadows crossed his face as he stood there. Earlier that week, a representative in the state legislature had called the Muslim community in Oklahoma a cancer on society. Ostensibly, Enchassi would be standing behind a podium addressing the great hall of the capitol filled with Muslim men and women on their knees for Jummah. His words, however, would seem to address the Christians of Oklahoma: ties to Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael and David and Jesus and Mary; his Native American grandson from the Cheyenne tribe; his turkey at Thanksgiving stuffed with rice and garbanzos and spiced ground beef; “it sounds like a joke but today the rabbi the imam and the preacher walked into these halls together.”

We come with a message of love and a message of peace. We want you to look at your Muslims brothers and sisters, the citizens of the State of Oklahoma around you, and let me assure you that we’re not a cancer. We want to assure you that we are a vital part of this society

and

when you look at a Muslim, always think of me as your brother
from a different mother

and

We are a nation of immigrants. Our strength is drawn from our diversity. What makes us stay great is that we cash in our diversity, and we’re a family. And we love one another. I’m not a cancer. Representative — I’m not a cancer!
Imam Imad Enchassi, waiting to speak. Painting: Wilson Hurley, from Visions of the Land series, “Autumn Woods, North of Tahlequah.” Photos: Randy R. Potts

If Muslim Day at the capitol was a day of reaching out to the general public in Oklahoma, it may fall on deaf ears if local CBS News 9's report is any indication: in their brief broadcast they misrepresented the anti-Muslim protesters as singing “Amazing Grace” rather than screaming “whore” at young teen girls; the only adjective used in reference to the anti-Muslim protesters, “patriotism.” The hymns were sung by local Interfaith Alliance members who, though they outnumbered or at least matched the numbers of the anti-Muslim protesters, were not interviewed. News 9 also neglected to show the interruption of Jummah with the Lord’s Prayer, the most dramatic part of the day.

Oklahoma’s Native American and African-American communities both experienced burned down neighborhoods and stolen land. Even today, the only representation of African-Americans in the historical paintings in the main second floor gallery is that of a half-naked slave working beside a steamboat; the most noticeable representation of Native Americans in the building is a bronze sculpture of a man in clothing the Native Americans, forced to live in Oklahoma after traversing the Trail of Tears, didn’t even wear. The Muslim community in Oklahoma, aware of this history, aware of the present day — hearing themselves called a cancer by their representatives and watching themselves misreprensented in local TV news — has a difficult task ahead if it is to overcome similar marginalization.