Being Muslim in Oklahoma: Reflections on My Time With CAIR-OK
Six months ago, I began a Community Outreach Fellowship at the Council on American Islamic Relations-Oklahoma Chapter (CAIR-OK). CAIR is the largest Muslim civil rights organization in America. Its mission is to protect civil liberties, enhance the understanding of Islam, and empower American Muslims. Despite being a native Okie and former intern for the organization, I was surprised to find my fellowship with CAIR-OK provided me an invaluable perspective on both the Muslim and non-Muslim community in Oklahoma. Little did I know that these past six months would turn out to be one of the best experiences of my life. At the events I organized, I witnessed Okies take the time to travel from rural parts of Oklahoma to volunteer at our CAIR-OK events and show their support for the Muslim community; At the same time, I also saw first-hand the deep-seated Islamophobia and hatred some have toward the Muslim community. Part of the mission of CAIR as a national organization is to build coalitions that promote mutual understanding, but this can be especially trying in a state as politically conservative as Oklahoma.
On March 2nd, CAIR-OK hosted the third Annual Muslim Day at the Capitol. This is one of CAIR-OK’s largest events of the year, attracting about 150 people. On this day, Muslims from across the state gather at the capitol to meet with their representatives and discuss issues affecting the Okie Muslim community. This year’s Muslim Day at the Capitol was unique in that it drew in more non-Muslims than the previous two years. As I walked toward the state Capitol that day, I initially encountered protesters holding signs that read “Go Home” among other hurtful things. Given the results of the recent presidential election, the CAIR-OK staff had prepared for protesters to gather outside of the capitol, but it was still discouraging to be greeted by protesters holding demeaning signs. As I entered the Capitol Rotunda, I watched in awe as I saw the protesters outnumbered by parents and young children holding signs of support that read “You Belong” and “We Love You.” It was especially heartwarming to witness this outpouring of support specifically for the Muslim community, given that 68% of voters in Oklahoma voted for Donald Trump this past November. Despite the presence of protesters, it turned out to be a successful event. Muslim youth from across Oklahoma met with their representatives, and many toured the state capitol for the first time. This event has been momentous in increasing civic engagement among the Okie Muslim community and amplifying the voice of Okie Muslims more generally.
In June, CAIR-OK hosted the first-ever “Revealing Ramadan” event in the Oklahoma City metro area in which 160 non-Muslims were welcomed to the Islamic Center of Greater Oklahoma City to learn about the month of Ramadan. People of all faiths and ethnicities flooded the mosque to learn about the month of Ramadan and tour the facility. The majority of those in attendance had never been to a mosque and many did not know a Muslim. I watched young children try baklava and biryani for the first time, turning to their parents to ask them what the various buffet dishes being offered were. I watched as my fellow colleagues and friends sat on a panel to explain Islamic teachings, offer their personal Ramadan experiences, and share stories of discrimination they have faced based on their faith. This was one of the most powerful events I had the pleasure of organizing during my fellowship. Through community organizing, I have found that it is often fear of “the other” that drives individuals to have negative views of Muslims in Oklahoma. Many of those who hold these negative views have never met a Muslim, and base their views on information gathered from mainstream media. The most personally rewarding experiences I have had during my fellowship have been speaking to adults old and young, from various backgrounds, about their views on Islam and Muslims, and sharing my own experience as an American Muslim with them.
Much of what has made CAIR-OK successful is the dedication of its staff. CAIR-OK Executive Director Adam Soltani works tirelessly, juggling raising his two young sons with the demands that come with serving Muslims in the most conservative state in America. While the majority of the CAIR-OK staff are actually not Muslim, they are committed advocates for the Muslim community. I saw first-hand the amount of time staff members spend working outside of the office, supporting the Muslim community through their involvement with many other local organizations also dedicated to promoting justice. The composition of the CAIR-OK staff in itself illustrates that race, age, religion, gender etc. do not determine one’s ability to serve and better their community. Rather, it is a person’s own will, drive, and character that determine the positive impact they will have on those around them.
As I begin graduate school at Yale and leave Oklahoma permanently, I feel a deep sense of fulfillment. This fulfillment stems from knowing that I was able to give back to the community I spent most of my childhood in. As I look back on this chapter of my life I have no regrets about the time I spent at CAIR-OK. This organization will always have a special place in my heart because it has introduced me to life-long friends, provided me with a platform to share my experiences as a Muslim American, and given me the opportunity to work with interfaith partners on bettering the state. The people I have met on this journey have taught me the importance of continuing the pursuit of justice, even in the hardest of places and times.