OKLAHOMA CITY — Four years after being barred from giving a routine legislative prayer, Imad Enchassi stood before Senate lawmakers, making history.
He is believed to be the first Muslim imam to give the daily legislative invocation before the full state Senate.
But minutes before facing lawmakers, the senior imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City fought back tears as he spoke about the hurt he felt in 2017. Though he’d been permitted to give a prayer before the chamber many years prior, state House lawmakers in 2017 rejected his application to say the daily prayer. He said lawmakers gave him no reason.
“I kept that story to myself for about a year, simply because I don’t want to embarrass my community,” he said. “And most importantly, I didn’t want to embarrass the state of Oklahoma. I don’t want my state to look backward, anti-progressive and bigoted.”
After that experience, Enchassi said he had mixed feelings about giving the prayer in the state Senate. He said he didn’t want to accept an offer only to be denied again. The last rejection still leaves him emotional.
“We are so much in love with Lady Liberty,” he said. “We’re so much in love with our state. We’re so much in love with our city. And, it was devastating that love was not reciprocated at least by some elected officials.”
Enchassi said he showed up early to the state Capitol on Monday to avoid expected protesters. He said protesters have shown up every time his faith community holds its annual Muslim Day at the Capitol. But Monday, Enchassi said there were no protesters.
He said he believes Oklahomans are more accepting of their Muslim neighbors.
“We’re striving to ensure that we repel hate with love,” he said. “And you know perhaps in 2017, we lost the battle, but here we are. I want to call it winning the war. Love wins.”
State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, who invited Enchassi to speak, said her district is home to the largest Islamic mosque.
“That’s a big part of my constituency, and obviously I feel like if you’re going to talk about diversity and inclusion, then you need to live out those values as well,” she said.
Adam Soltani, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Oklahoma chapter, said Muslims have been allowed to lead prayers in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures across the country.
“It’s far past time that it happens in Oklahoma,” he said. “Definitely Oklahoma is behind on this.”
Soltani said lawmakers had previously allowed prayers from other non-Christian faith leaders, but there’s been a lack of representation from the state’s Muslim community.
He said imams have been interested in giving the daily invocation, but there’s been apprehension from state lawmakers because of fears the request wouldn’t be approved amid some underlying bigotry or discriminatory views.
But Soltani said there’s been in shift in attitudes toward Muslims in the Capitol. That started in 2018 when many of the outspoken anti-Muslim lawmakers chose not to run for re-election or lost their races. Voters also elected the state Legislature’s first Muslim lawmaker — Oklahoma City Democrat Mauree Turner, he said. Turner watched Enchassi’s prayer from the Senate gallery.
“I think that has had a very positive impact in our state,” Soltani said. “Muslims are more visible now than they were prior to 2015. They’re more visible at the Capitol. They’re there on a regular basis.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.