Dr. Imad Enchassi, assistant professor and chairman in Islamic studies, shares his experiences as a Muslim man living in the U.S.
Q: Tell me about your childhood in Lebanon.
A: I grew up in a refugee camp. My father is a Palestinian. My mother is Syrian. She was also a refugee in Lebanon. My father sold produce, and my mother was a housewife. I went to Unicef schools. My preschool was Catholic, so I was exposed early on to interfaith through works of Church United, an orthodox Christian organization that took care of Palestinian children. I was born in 1964, and the war started in 1973. The entirety of my childhood memories were cloaked in violence and war. I survived The Sabra and Shatila (the massacre of Palestinians and Lebansese Shiites by the Kataeb Party). Don’t Google pictures – they’re very gruesome. I have experience in love and hate at the same time.
Q: What was it like to move to the U.S.?
A: I landed in New York and then went to Dallas Fort Worth. Dallas was the running show at the time. When I arrived in New York, I saw Lady Liberty and fell in love with her from the moment I laid eyes on her. Having been a refugee, freedom tastes much much sweeter to me. I worked and went to school at same time, advanced in my studies, and went into the restaurant business. I got into consulting and got my Masters and PhD in HR, while working and raising a family. Then Sept. 11 happened. There was a calling, and I went to a seminary in Lebanon, where I no longer lived in a refugee camp. I earned another bachelor, Masters, and PhD, this time in Islamic studies. I guess you could call me a seeker of knowledge.
Q: How did 9/11 affect you personally?
If you ask a Muslim American what it is like to live in the U.S., many of us will ask if you mean prior to or after 9/11. I actually wrote my PhD paper on the constructive effects of 9/11 on Muslim Americans. The effects were not positive, but 9/11 caused an increase in Interfaith work and outreach to people of different faiths, raising awareness in law enforcement and universities. 9/11 brought the Muslim community from crazy adolescence to adulthood overnight. The community matured, and a new Muslim American identity was formed.
Of course, it also came with lots of discrimination, especially in airport profiling. I teach a liberal arts seminar called “9/11 and the misconceptions of Islam.” In my class, I show a documentary about a Muslim pilot trying to get pilot license right after 9/11. The drama he has to go through to become a Muslim pilot is astonishing. I think what hurt the most is the discrimination we faced from politicians who used our faith and are still using our faith to advance their bigoted agenda.
Q: How did you end up at OCU?
A: I finished PhD in Islamic studies in 2010, and part of the constructive effects of 9/11 was to put an Islamic or Middle Eastern chair in universities. OCU was one of the places who welcomed us and enthusiastically reached to us to put a chair here. The community came up with $1.5 million endowed chair, and within a year and a half, the money was raised. The contract says the person who should be in that chair needs to have a PhD in Islamic studies and a name in the community. I fit profile. Additionally, Oklahoma City and OCU have strong visions of interfaith. They are an oasis of hope and a beacon of light in this community, squaring with my belifs. Plus, the mosque is 6 minutes from here.
Q: Tell me about the prejudice you’ve encounters as a Muslim in Oklahoma.
A: State question 755 is an anti-Sharia law and would ban me from practicing my faith. It was passed by 80 percent of the people’s vote, so we had to challenge in federal court. Just yesterday, I attended the Islamic Extremism in Oklahoma hearing, which was funded by taxpayer money and led by Rep. John Bennett. The hearing was pretty much modern McCarthyism. Bennett basically named every single Muslim organization in the state, from the OCU Muslim Student Association to the Muslim American Society, as terrorist organizations. I was called out by name, along with Adam Soltani (chair of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches’ Religions United Committee) as the top terrorist in the state of Oklahoma. The hearing looked at the interfaith community that was there to support us and told them they were complicit just because they showed up. That’s when I lost it. I said a couple things to him, mostly about how we don’t live on a plantation, and he’s not the master. This is a free country.
Q: What can we do to stop further prejudice?
A: Please vote. And know that your vote does matter, even if we may think our state is overwhelmingly a certain party. Secondly, we need to educate. The Holocaust came out of hate speech. That’s why the Muslims’ number one advocate/alliance is the Jewish community. Advocate would be the third thing. In any possible way and by any means necessary, outreach to as many people as we can.
Q: Tell me about your family.
A: Well, I hate my daughter. No, I’m just kidding. That’s her right across from me. She’s my assistant – basically my boss, actually. I’m married with five children. All of them are gainfully employed, thank God. My oldest works for FedEx. The next boy works for maintenance, and my oldest daughter is a digital executive producer at KFOR. Jasmine, here, is an OCU student in computer science and forensics. And Ali is at OCCC and will come to OCU next year.
Q: What do you like to do outside of work?
A: I spend my time almost 7 days a week educating and advocating. It’s a full time job for me. Between my duties as a chaplain here at OCU, helping Muslim students on campus and at other universities, and helping the larger Muslim community, I stay busy. One of the saddest things is that, as a minority, sometimes I stray away about talking about my hobbies because I don’t want them to be misconstrued. I used to like to go shooting at a range, until after Sept. 11. I decided that’s not a sport I wanted to do anymore. I enjoy traveling with my wife, exploring places. I like to hike. We hike in Hot Springs national park, and at least once a week, we hike around lake Hefner. I go to the gym once a day and lift weights. That relaxes me.
Q: What is something that very few people know about you?
A: I am a 5-star chef. I grew up in the restaurant business, so for 16 years in the business, I went through trainings to learn about the culinary arts of different nations. I could do pretty much any kind of food, from Mexican to Chinese to French to American to Middle Eastern, Indian, and Pakistani food, along with any dessert that fit with those cuisines. I don’t like to do it anymore, but when I do, the family enjoys it. I like to make kafta, which is a blend of ground lamb with spices, onions, and parsley, charcoaled. Normally, it’s served next to steamed potatoes and vegetables.
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