My homegirl Sarah Albahadily made all the arrangements for our visit to Oklahoma City today, and she’s just about as Oklahoma as you can get. She proudly blasts country music in her car and often wears cowboy shoes under her long flowing abaya dress. On the 4th of July, her mother puts on a headscarf designed like an American flag.
“A lot of people make fun of Oklahoma for being filled with rednecks” she tells me as we walk around the mosque. “Which is fine, I get it. But what bothers me is when people don’t think that we’re developed. We’ve got a lot going on here.”
Before you say “Wow, there are Muslims in Oklahoma?” think again. Suhaib Webb, probably one of the most sought after scholars on the Islamic speakers circuit today, is from this state. So is Kareem Salama, who’s got crazy buzz right now as being a Muslim country music artist.
I’ve noticed a lot of Muslims that live in smaller towns unfortunately are either embarrassed to live where they live or anxious to jump on the first opportunity to move somewhere else. But what’s relieving about this community is how content and proud people are about living here. I asked Sarah about some of the things she liked to do for fun as a kid and her eyes lit up as she talked about all the rodeos and country music concerts she used to go to. I try my hardest to downplay my secret love for country music, but I can’t resisnt once she started talking about Rascal Flatts and Garth Brooks.
Sarah grew up attending the place we visited today, the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. It’s a cozy mosque with radiant architecture that her father helped build. I know it’s incredibly cliche and hokey to point out the diversity inside a mosque, but it was definitely a melting pot in there. I stood outside the mosque’s parking lot as I saw a group of Hispanic Muslims arrive to prayer on motorcycles. Next to them a group of Iranians I overheard talking about a NASCAR race coming up. I found an air hockey table in the mosque’s second floor, which is all the convincing I’d need to come back here again.
We head back outside the building and Sarah nervously smirks as Bassam takes photograph after photograph of her in the parking lot.
“I don’t really like being the center of attention,” she said. “Very rarely will you see me have my picture taken.”
My background in reporting often makes me a little too inquisitive at times, so I decided to ease off my questions for her and just hang out with everyone for the rest of the night. To break our fast, Sarah arranged for a group of about 20 people to hang out with us at ZamZam, an Arab restaurant down the road that’s a popular hangout for many Muslims here.
I’ve been burned out a lot on this trip from all the traveling, media interviews and just keeping up with the 30 Mosques site in general. So it was an incredible breath of fresh air to just hang out with a bunch of people and goof off while eating some awesome food. For the two hours at the restaurant we were there, it was great to just forget about all the stress and just have a good time among all my newly made friends.
Afterwards, the Oklahoma crew took us downtown to check out the memorial for the infamous 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Chills went up and down my arms as I realized I was standing in front of the place where 15 years ago, two white Christian men, orchestrated the bombing of a federal building that ended up killing over 100 people.
As a Muslim, I realized this is probably the place where racial profiling for us began in this country (Granted, the first World Trade Center bombing happened 2 years before this). Immediately after the bombing, Muslims were blamed for the attacks because two men near the building were apparently seen speaking Arabic shortly before the blasts.The Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), had its first major campaign in response to the bombing.
And in 2010, Oklahoma City Muslims are arguably still facing backlash simply for who they are. Banning Shariah law is a ballot issue this November for local residents, even though no Muslim really proposed the idea of trying to implement it here to begin with. Candidates running for Congress here are basing their platform simply on the fact that they’re anti-CAIR.
But if you think these issues define what Muslims in Oklahoma City are like, think again dude. When I think of Oklahoma, I think of Sarah’s cowboy boots tucked under her abaya or people talking smack about who is a better NASCAR driver. I think we as Muslims need to get out of this dumb two-dimensional mold where we’re only seen to the outside world as people that are victims of hate crimes, have airport security problems, or these days are dealing with opposition to mosques. Sure those are important issues, but why have we allowed those issues to define us?
I dunno about you, but I’d rather talk about Garth Brooks than share with someone what my dumb take is on the “Ground Zero Mosque.”