Sunday, April 19, marks the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City — that contained a childcare facility. The blast killed 168, including 19 children. Hundreds more were injured.
That morning, local resident Ibrahim Ahmad was rushing to the airport to catch a flight to visit family, including his ill grandfather, in Jordan. From her window a neighbor spotted Ibrahim toss his dufflebag into the back of a friend’s brown pickup truck before speeding away.
She called the FBI. At his layover in Chicago, Ibrahim was stopped and questioned for three hours. He missed his connecting flight and was redirected to London’s Heathrow Airport.
In London, however, he was stopped again and stripped searched. In his luggage were some recently purchased electronics — gifts for family in Jordan — deemed potential “bomb-making” materials. Ibrahim was cuffed and sent back to the U.S., destined for Washington, D.C.
Recalling this episode in his book, Cloud Miles, Imad Enchassi writes: “News of Ibrahim’s detainment quickly reached the U.S. By this time, the media had been told that a man of Middle Eastern descent had been detained and was being picked up in D.C.”
The sketch of the second suspect, based on the neighbor’s description, looked like many Muslim men — including Imad. And he happened to drive a brown Toyota pickup truck, similar to the one that took Ibrahim to the airport.
At the time, Imad, who is now a senior imam in Oklahoma City, worked for a cafeteria company. And he was training Ibrahim for a management position.
They attended the same Muslim community that met weekly in an apartment because they had no mosque at the time. Imad sometimes gave the Jummah (sermon) before Friday prayers.
Imad became suspect #2. So he turned himself in — as some doubts about Ibrahim surfaced: “The media had been so convincing that even I was skeptical of my own friend’s innocence.”
Hatred directed at the Muslim community in Oklahoma City was palatable. Imad and his wife, Judith, brought Ibrahim’s wife to their home following death threats.
Imad tried to work at the cafeteria but the hostility was too great. The media described the local Muslim community, of which Imad and Ibrahim were a part, as “a seceding group” which cast the image of a terrorist sleeper cell.
Imad was greatly surprised, however, at how he was brushed aside by the FBI and told to return home. So were other Muslim men who wanted to clear their names.
Then the big announcement came: Timothy McVeigh was identified as the homegrown terrorist responsible for the deadly and destructive deed. His accomplice, Terry Nichols, also was arrested.
Even then, the Muslim community in Oklahoma City got no reprieve. Accusations arose that the two white American men arrested had some kind of connection to a Muslim group.
In reality though, former U.S. Army soldiers McVeigh and Nichols were tied to a right-wing extremist group as part of the militant Patriot movement that rejects the authority of government and law enforcement.
Imad said the OKC Muslim community never received an apology for their deep suffering. However, some good came from this dark chapter.
“The Oklahoma Interfaith Alliance was established immediately,” he recalled, making it “one of the strongest interfaith communities in the country.”
Some Christian churches, Imad wrote, offered their vans to transport Muslim women to their places of worship since their wearing of hijabs make them easy targets for hate. And the first gift for the emotion-provoking Murrah Building Memorial, now at the bombing site, was a $5,000 check from the Muslim community.
On a personal level, Ibrahim and Imad took a pie to the neighbor who had reported the quick getaway to show there were no hard feelings. Although she apologized profusely, they assured her they understood she was simply carrying out her civic duty.
This is just one chapter in the amazing and uplifting life of Imam Imad Enchassi — and one chapter in his book, Cloud Miles: A Remarkable Journey of Mercy, Peace, and Purpose, published this year by Nurturing Faith.
It is a reminder to persevere in hard times, to avoid reaching conclusions too quickly, to acknowledge the repeated failures of prejudice and generalization, and to show love where others seek to grow hatred.
May we remember those whose innocent lives were lost and harmed 25 years ago due to this horrific, hate-filled act — and commit ourselves to the ways of peace and mercy.
Imad’s book is available in print or by digital download at nurturingfaith.net.