By Zoya Timoshenko, Contributing Writer
Islam has become a word known by all, feared by some and revered by others.
The religion came to the forefront of many Americans’ minds after the morning of September 11, 2001. Many people associated the acts of extremists or terrorists with the acts of those who identify as Muslim. In fact, many Muslim countries in the Middle East have struggled to protect themselves against these terrorist groups in their own countries.
Many of these citizens have fled to other countries, seeking asylum, survival and protection. They seek relief from oppression.
Even though OBU’s population predominately contains students that have grown up in a country with freedom of religion, some students and alumni of Bison Hill are from European countries considered some of the most oppressed in the world.
For example, Ayoub Akil is a former student of Oklahoma Baptist University. His family is originally from Morocco, but an earthquake that left their home in ruins forced them to flee to Italy when Akil was still young.
After living in Italy for a while, his family relocated to France. Akil became a successful athlete in France running and playing soccer. He decided he wanted to study and compete simultaneously, which was not an option in France.
He began to search for an American university to compete and study in. OBU picked him up for his first few years in the United States, and he later finished his studies in New York at Long Island University.
Akil said even though he found freedom from political oppression stateside, he also witnessed Islamophobia. Akil discusses the struggles and experiences he has had as a Muslim in a foreign country sometimes wary of Islam.
“I have been discriminated [against] my whole life,” he said. “Did it affect me? Nope! It only made me stronger and a better person.”
Akil shared a specific story of the discrimination he faced in the States.
“One time I was flying back home [to France], and at the airport in Dallas one guy came by and tried to play it friendly. Once we were ready to board he asked me gently if I was going to blow up the aircraft and if so, could I just let him know and he would’ve stayed in the airport. [I] can’t be mad at that guy. He is ignorant… [I] just [have to] ignore them and keep on chasing your dreams and never let these stupid people tear you apart.”
Even though he has struggled through discrimination, Akil said he arrived in the States with a positive attitude.
“I felt comfortable [coming to the United States] because I didn’t come to the USA as an Arab that believes in Islam but as a young kid chasing a dream, and I just happened to be an Arabic kid who is Muslim. I am proud of who I am and in what I believe.”
While Akil came to the United States in the pursuit of happiness and fulfilled dreams, his faith was still personal to him.
He defended Islam, saying, “I am a Muslim because evidences [have] shown and proven by theologians that Islam is the right path to follow. Does it mean that I think that all those who aren’t Muslims need to be bombed? No, because religion is something personal. [It] is the type of relationship you build with God just like you build relationships with people.”
“I will always feel comfortable telling people that I am a Muslim,” he said. “It is a belief that is personal as I said before and if I can say that I believe that Justin Bieber is a good singer why shouldn’t I proudly say that I believe in Islam?”
Another Muslim living in Shawnee, nineteen-year-old Reza Kharati, also shared his story. He said his family emigrated from Iran to the United States two years ago.
“My mom won the green card lottery,” he said. “I only had one week to tell everyone goodbye before I came to America.”
As Kharati called his friends in Iran to inform them he would be leaving in a week, his friends thought he was joking at first. Other friends were jealous and decided to never speak to him again. Some friends were excited for him, telling him he was lucky, and that God loved him.
They told him to find the right way and make a good life for himself, he recalled.
Even though he and his family welcomed the move to the United States, overcoming culture shock was a real struggle for them.
Iran’s population is 99.4 percent Muslim, and Kharati’s family is no exception. Unlike in the United States, there is no equivalent to separation of church and state. Islam saturates every aspect of culture, society and government.
Adjusting to the culture of the United States took time.
According to Kharati, his family was accepted and welcomed here in America.
“People here are nice. [In] any country they have good people and bad people,” he said.
“[At my former job] the boss told me he knows I’m from the Middle East, but he knows that I am not a terrorist. I do not feel bad here because some people are accepting of Islam. They don’t say ‘why are you Muslim’ or ‘why are you in my country.’”
Kharati said he feels that there is social equality and freedom in the United States that makes it easier to express oneself.
“[Americans] don’t care if you are black or white or Muslim or Christian. You can make a good life,” he said.
In addition, he said he feels at ease here versus in Iran because the government follows a checks and balances system and gives the people a voice.
“If the people say something to the government, the government listens to them. My country is not like this. [In America] they do not care if you are the president or if you work for the government. You have to pay taxes; you are not shown favoritism. Here you can ask the president his salary. In my country you cannot do that. There is no honesty.”
Kharati said he hasn’t really experienced discrimination in the US, but he does worry about ever-changing immigration laws and how that might impact him in the future.
Despite the fear of being sent to Iran, Kharati said he loves living in America and compared it to Iran in terms of economic opportunities and political systems.
“In my country you cannot find a good job; you cannot have a good salary unless you are rich. It’s not good if you want to stay in my country,” he said.
Kharati said he loves his home country, but only recommends it for visiting and not for permanent residence.
“My country is beautiful and hospitable, but it is only good if you are a tourist and you go for one week or one month maximum in one year. You want to see it and then leave. It is not good if you want to live there. If you have a really nice job the maximum salary is going to be like $200 per month,” he said.
“Everything is expensive, but the salaries are low. Living is hard in our country. Here I feel good because I am free. If I work one month here I can buy everything for my house; I can pay for my gas; I can pay for my clothes; I can pay for my bills. In my country if I work for one month maybe I can pay for my bills and my gas. So here is better.”
The economic stability was a nice change from Iran, but the youth culture of the United States was a shocking change, he said. Kharati had an uncle and three cousins in the United States, so he had some idea of American cultural values, but his views were also influenced by Hollywood.