The Council on American-Islamic Relations was a fledgling organization less than a year old when its co-founder, Nihad Awad, received an urgent telephone call from Oklahoma City in April 1995.
It was just days after a truck bomb blew apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
The Oklahoma City bombing forever changed the organization created to foster communication between American Muslims and the communities in which they lived, Awad said at the recent Council on American-Islamic Relations Oklahoma banquet in Oklahoma City.
"That event shed light on the challenges that faced our community. It started a movement,” he said.
Before the bombing and the anti-Muslim backlash that followed, the council had been asked to review a few incidents in which Muslim-Americans' civil rights had been violated. Harassment and other harmful acts increased after the bombing, showing Awad and other organization leaders "the depth of the challenges before us.”
"That (bombing) shaped the focus for many years to come. It set us on an entirely different track,” he said.
In 1995 and every year after that, the council published a report on the status of Muslim-American civil rights.
And each April, Awad said he remembers the Oklahoma City tragedy.
Imad Enchassi, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, made the phone call to Awad, urging him to come to Oklahoma City.
Muslim Oklahomans, particularly those of Arabic descent, were viewed with suspicion in the bombing's aftermath. In fact, a Muslim family's home had been attacked, presumably by vigilantes who believed the rumors swirling about the bombing being the handiwork of Middle Eastern terrorists.
Awad, who also is the organization's executive director, said he arrived in Oklahoma City on April 26, 1995 — 13 years to the day of his speech at the recent local banquet.
Awad said he remembered meeting with the man whose home had been attacked and speaking with his wife, who miscarried her first child soon after the attack. He said he also remembered meeting with then-Gov. Frank Keating and presenting bombing recovery funds donated by the Oklahoma Muslim community.
He said the bombing and many of the events that followed brought the first of many lessons for America, among them "not to rush to judgment.”
He said that first civil-rights report, called "A Rush to Judgment,” was released in September 1995 and chronicled more than 200 documented incidents of harassment of Muslims.
Oklahoma chapter Executive Director Razi Hashmi said the council increased its level of support for American Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. Educating people about Islam became a priority because the 2001 attacks were carried out by Middle Eastern terrorists acting in the name of Islam.
"There was an increase in hate crimes against Muslims,” Hashmi said.
He said there were fewer than 10 council chapters, mostly in major cities, before Sept. 11, 2001; there now are 35. Oklahoma's chapter was started in 2007.
Saturday, Awad challenged Oklahoma Muslims to speak out for themselves and other Muslim Americans.
America, he said, is at a crossroads, and American Muslims must help the country correctly define who they are. (MORE)