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Point of View: Words matter

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Earlier this week, we at CAIR Oklahoma made the difficult decision to publicly call out hate speech by an Oklahoma county elected official. We did not take this decision lightly. As government affairs director of Oklahoma’s chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-OK), I firmly believe that most bigotry is not rooted in hate, but in ignorance — which frequently can easily be overcome by getting to know one another.

It is through building relationships with those outside of our social circles that stereotypes are broken down and lose their power. At the end of apartheid in South Africa, a verbal exchange developed from Zulu tradition to encourage peace and empathy where there was once factionalism and hate. This exchange goes like this: one looking at another says “I am here to be seen,” while the other says “I see you.”

This exchange, though only a few words, is deeply meaningful. To say “I am here” takes a profound amount of courage. It is the statement of minorities of race, religion and sex throughout the years. To say “I am here” is an ask for acknowledgment, a request to be seen not for the things that set us apart, but for the things that make us the same.

For the past several months, the Muslim community has been standing in the face of Islamophobic rhetoric, peacefully, and with a courageous amount of vulnerably, saying to Oklahoma County’s assessor, “I am here.” Finally, through two months of persistence, Oklahoma Muslims got an answer from him, which was essentially, “I am too busy to see you,” followed by silence when we asked when a less “busy” time to see us would arrive.

After the murder of 50 worshipers in New Zealand, fueled by hate rhetoric and the resulting rise of white nationalism, the power of this elected official’s words garishly glared up at us from our screens.

The New Zealand gunman wasn't born a terrorist. He did not wake up overnight with a sudden impulse for brutality. We often hear incidents like this called “rogue” and these perpetrators of violence “lone gunmen.” But the truth is, they are not “lone” in their hatred. They are not alone in their perception of religious or racial superiority or their sense of misplaced nationalism. Rather, extremists often have a community of encouragement — in person, online, or both. These pockets of hate are made stronger or weaker by the larger narratives of leadership.

It is our duty as citizens to hold our elected officials to a higher standard. Words matter. Leadership matters. To those whom we elect and give the privilege and responsibility of power, we say to you “we are here” and “we see you.”

Habrock is government affairs director of CAIR Oklahoma.

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