Imad Enchassi, imam and president of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, holds a copy of the Holy Quran at Mercy School, an Islamic school opened in 2010 in Oklahoma City. PHOTO BY JOHN CLANTON, THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE
Imad Enchassi, imam and president of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, often tells jokes as he shares about his Muslim faith and culture.
BY CARLA HINTON
April 29, 2011
April 29, 2011
As one of the more prominent Muslim leaders in the Oklahoma City metro area, Imad Enchassi’s quick smile and endless supply of jokes often diffuses any tension over religious differences.
Enchassi, the imam and president of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said he learned that making people laugh humanizes him so that people learn to look beyond common Muslim stereotypes.
“Comedy is part of our ‘treach’ — preach and teach,” he said.
“We’ve (Muslims) been dehumanized so when I go and crack a couple of jokes, they say ‘This imam, he’s funny, he’s human.’”
Enchassi, 46, readily brings his humor to the forefront, but his life has not always been filled with fun and jokes. Prejudice and religious bigotry have marked portions of his life, but he said he refuses to be defined by it.
Enchassi grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Syrian mother and Palestinian father. He said he spent his teen years in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps and was there in September 1982 when the camps were set upon by a group called the Lebanese Christian militiamen and hundreds of refugees were killed.
Enchassi said surviving the massacre made him think long and hard about the power and destructiveness of hatred.
“I knew that hatred had to stop. What hatred is so deep that would make someone cut a baby from the womb?” he said.
Enchassi said he immigrated to the United States soon after the massacre and attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth. He said he worked his way through college (he obtained a graduate degree in human resources management) with a cafeteria chain that eventually sent him to Oklahoma City to operate one of its restaurants.
Enchassi said he joined with a relatively small contingent of Muslims to form the Islamic Society. He said a shortage of imams prompted the society’s board to ask him to fill in as the organization’s spiritual leader. He said he he’s the position of imam and society president since 2003.
Enchassi said the society started in an apartment on NW 50 and Portland Avenue and met there for four years before opening the organization’s current mosque in December 1997. He said the Muslim community that attends services at the mosque, 3214 N St. Clair has grown from about 27 people to more than 1,000.
Enchassi said he went back to school in Lebanon several years ago to earn a bachelor’s degree an doctorate degree in Islamic studies. He said he felt it was important to obtain more knowledge about the roots of his faith because he is now serving as spiritual guide for many Oklahoma Muslims.
Enchassi said he’s proud of the fact that the society built a new building to house Mercy School, the Islamic school it founded for local Muslim youths.
He said the school is part of his two-fold vision for the future.
He said first, he and other society leaders will continue working to educate Muslims, particularly young Muslims, about their faith. They want to make sure they are proud of their faith and their place in American society.
“Being American and Muslim does not contradict each other — they complements each other,” Enchassi said.
Second, the Muslim leader said he wants to continue educating the community-at-large about the Islamic faith. He said strong interfaith relationships in Oklahoma were developed in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when false rumors circulated that Muslims were responsible for the tragedy. Enchassi said that interfaith awareness helped in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and he said his vision is for those relationships with people and leaders of other faiths to be strengthened.
“The aim is to prepare and educate people about Islam in order to move forward in the future.”
He’s writing a book about the lessons he’s learned.
“There is an Islamic proverb that says ‘Anytime I debate an intelligent person, I win. Anytime I debate an ignorant person, he wins.’”