On April 19, 1995, the morning of the Oklahoma City Murrah Building bombing, a friend of mine, Ibrahim Ahmad, was leaving to the airport to visit his family in Jordan.
The plan was for him to visit his family in Jordan while his wife traveled to visit her family in Mexico.
Ibrahim’s family in Jordan, especially his younger nieces and nephews, were very interested in American electronics.
So, prior to leaving he went to Radio Shack and purchased an array of small and affordable electronics as gifts for his family abroad.
Ibrahim’s flight was scheduled on the morning of April 19. As customary for many Muslims, Ibrahim was running late that morning.
His cousin pulled up to his home to pick him up and take him to the airport. His neighbor looked out the window to see two Muslim men rushing to throw duffle bags in a vehicle and then speed off.
After news of the Murrah Building bombing, she promptly called the FBI to report suspicious behavior of these dubious individuals, giving a description of two brown men with large noses, beards and curly hair.
Ibrahim was stopped at his layover in Chicago and questioned for roughly three hours by airport security, then another three hours by the FBI.
They started out asking general questions, “How long have you been here? When did you become a citizen?”
Then they started asking questions regarding the Muslim community at large. “Do you know how many Muslims are in Oklahoma City? Do you pray? Do you go to the mosque?”
He answered all their questions, confirming he was a devout Muslim, that he did pray and fast and go to mosque. Eventually, the FBI let him go and allowed him to resume his journey.
By then, he had missed his connecting flight and was redirected to Heathrow airport in London, where he was detained again and questioned.
This time, they stripped him naked and did a search. This is an extremely humiliating invasion of privacy for anyone, but for a Muslim in particular, it is humiliating.
Security soon found the cluster of electronics he had purchased as gifts for his relatives in his luggage, which they deemed potential “bomb-making materials.”
They handcuffed him and put him on a plane back to the states, sending him to Washington, D.C.
By this time, the media had been told a man of Middle Eastern descent had been detained and was being picked up in D.C. Upon arrival, he was taken to a van and read his Miranda rights.
News of his detainment quickly spread and soon Ibrahim’s photo was plastered all over the media identifying him as John Doe number one.
The media reported his wife had fled to Mexico, insinuating she had known of the bombing in advance.
In truth, she was scheduled to leave for Mexico the next day and had not yet left.
I remember that night seeing footage of his house on the news. There were images of his wife outside the door in her hijab. She was trying to hide her face from the media with a packet of Pampers diapers.
I stood there dumbfounded, thinking, “How could this be? This is not right.”
Once word of Ibrahim’s address got out, he and his wife received death threats; their home was vandalized with people dumping trash on their lawn and worse. My wife and I knew it was not safe for her to remain in her home, so we brought her in to ours.
At this point, the media had been so convincing, even I was skeptical of my own friend’s innocence.
I attempted to go into work the next day at the restaurant I managed, but I could not make it through. The hate was palpable.
An older gentleman who had been coming in for years, and whom I had what I thought a good relationship with (he had even been to my home for dinner once), pointed at me and yelled, “You people better not have done this!”
A day or two later, Timothy McVeigh was identified as the terrorist.
Several Oklahoma Muslim families were devastated during this time by the unrelenting coverage of our community by the media.
Even after McVeigh and Terry Nichols were identified, the news did not stop profiling us.
Some outlets were convinced McVeigh and Nichols had connections to the Middle East somehow.
Rumors spread that Nichols had an insidious acquaintance in Indonesia and that McVeigh knew a contact in some other predominantly Muslim country. I cannot recall all the incredible and bizarre rumors.
I remember one man in particular, a political refugee living in America from Iraq. He, like myself, had seen many horrors. He struggled deeply with his mental health. His name was Hussein Hussein.
The media started following him, convinced he was connected somehow to McVeigh.
Hussein thought it was the Iraqi government coming after him. He was paranoid that then dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, had sent assassins to kill him.
This speculative and completely unnecessary invasion of his privacy by the media completely broke his mental health. He ended up homeless and lost his family.
He came to me for advice once. I tried to pull reality down within his grasp and attempted to get him professional help, but I was ultimately unsuccessful. I think of him often, wondering if there is something else I could have done.
The Muslim community never received any kind of apology for our targeting. The world just moved on. They kicked us and left us with dirt in our mouths.
But it is in times of hardship and crisis that love and friendship shines the brightest. Oklahoma has one of the strongest interfaith communities in the country.
The Murrah Building bombing was the first time we were put to the test, and I believe it is the reason we as a state are so good at interfaith work. We have had more time to practice.
Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Enchassi’s book, “Cloud Miles: A Remarkable Journey of Mercy, Peace and Purpose” (Nurturing Faith, 2020).
Senior Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, and chair of Islamic Studies at Wimberly School of Religion at Oklahoma City University. He is the author of Cloud Miles: A Remarkable Journey of Mercy, Peace and Purpose, and appeared in the short documentary “Mercy” (2018) and the feature-length documentary, “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims” (2010).