Mikael Bryant is an Enid native and a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law. He shares his experiences on embracing Islam as an Okie.
Tell us about yourself: What was it like growing up in Oklahoma where did you go to school and what is your family like?
I was born and raised in Enid, Oklahoma, which is the biggest metro area in Northwest Oklahoma. Enid was a great place to grow up. It is a quiet, tight-knit town, and I had a great life with friends and family. I was your average American boy from your average American family. I grew up playing music, riding horses, and shooting cans in the back yard with my bb gun. I was happy growing up in Enid, but like many of my peers, Northwest Oklahoma left me with an insatiable desire for adventure and travel.
I have since had the good fortune to act on some of this wanderlust, having had the opportunity to travel to many different countries in Europe and the Middle East, especially Lebanon, which has become a second home to me, and was the place where I met and married my dear wife.
My family is extremely close, even though we are all spread out. Growing up, I was the runt of my family, the youngest of 4 children. I think I was always in a hurry to grow up so I could catch up to them. This is the reason behind a lot of my ambition in my life, graduating college, law school, getting married, and getting my law license by age 24.
All of my siblings went back East for College, I went to Iowa, and now my brother lives in California, one of my sisters lives in New York, the other in Tulsa, and my parents are still in Enid. We do not see each other very much, but we sure have an active Whatsapp group.
You converted to Islam as a college student – please tell us more about what led you to this faith and how you knew it was right for you?
I did not have exposure to Islam or religions other than Christianity where I grew up. Virtually all of the population of Enid that claims religious affiliation is Christian. I grew up in a small, tight-knit, Lutheran congregation and was passionate about my faith early on. I even became a Lay Minister at my mother’s church when I was a young boy, assisting the pastor in the weekly service. However, as I got older, I quickly became disenchanted with the faith that I grew up with.
I was always a curious young man and began reading about different religions out of a desire to learn and understand people. As I learned more about the religions in different parts of the world and in different times in history I became more and more convinced that, while all of the followers of these faiths were certain they were right, I was certain that they were all wrong. I was a closet atheist for a couple of years and then became vocal about it in high school and told as many people that would listen that I thought religion was pointless and destructive.
To those with no faith, the following statement will not make any sense, but my guidance to Islam was a gift from God. It was careful, deliberate, and divine.
This was a threefold process. First, God prevented my mind and heart from believing that Islam was an evil faith, in spite of that opinion being dominant in the place I grew up in, the media, and based on my personal childhood memory of watching the towers fall on 9/11.
Second, God carefully exposed me to knowledge about this faith. Out of all the religions I studied and read about, I never read a thing about Islam, and I knew virtually nothing about it until I jokingly opened the Quran in a bookstore and turned right to Surat Al-Kafirun. The first sentence that I read from the Quran was “for you is your religion, and for me is my religion” (Surat Al-Kafirun, Ayat 6). After this one sentence, I knew that Islam was not a bad faith and began defending it just based on that sentence. That was all I knew about Islam until I got to college.
Finally, God gave me an interest in learning Arabic. It was completely unrelated to Islam, but it led to me hearing the words that changed my heart forever: “La Ilaha Il Allah,” No God but Allah.
I always thought Arabic was a cool-sounding language. I liked to listen to Palestinian rappers in high school, which is where I got my education about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When I got to college, I enrolled in an Arabic class, and the Muslim Student Association hosted a study group for it. I started going to their classes and learning about Islam after a speaker came to campus and said terrible things about Muslims. There were only two Muslims in my school and they were being attacked, and I felt compelled to stand with them. I joined MSA as a non-Muslim and began engaging in pro-Muslim activism.
I listened to the Quran and Nasheed (unaccompanied Islamic religious songs) when I began studying Arabic to get exposed to the Arabic language, and from the first time I heard “La Ilaha Il Allah,” No God but Allah, something in my heart changed.
It took a long time for me to accept that I was becoming religious. I battled with myself for three years on a journey in my life that I have come to call “the Bar or the Mimbar.” I would literally go to parties in school, feel guilty about it, leave, and go home and listen to Islamic lectures. I kept this up for a number of years. I was visiting friends in Houston during Ramadhan and fasting for the first time. We were in a Quran recitation circle in Galveston, Texas, and after I took my turn reciting, I realized that there was no fighting it anymore, I was already a Muslim. It was then and there that the local Imam witnessed my testimony of faith.
How has your family come to accept your faith?
My family is very open and accepting and incredibly diverse from a religious perspective. There are devout Christians in my family, atheists, Jews, and agnostics. My faith has never been an issue to them. They just want to make sure I am safe and happy, and they are happy with that. The only concern that has ever arisen is in that spirit. My family is a true blessing and I am lucky to have them.
You recently graduated from Oklahoma City University School of Law. What led you to major in law and what area do you specialize in?
I have always been on a path to the courtroom as I have always been surrounded by it. Currently there are 4 lawyers in my immediate family: my father, my brother, one of my sisters, and myself. My father was my first law professor and my first class was story time as a child. As a seasoned attorney, my father has a sophisticated understanding of case law as it has developed in history and a deep appreciation for the way that Supreme Court precedent has developed over the years. Some of my fondest memories are from sitting with him in front of the fire listening to his long narratives about case law, Supreme Court cases, and the importance of the judicial system.
To this day, he is still the best teacher that I have ever had. He quizzed me in law school on complex legal issues and I currently work as an Associate Attorney for his law firm here in Oklahoma City. He generally lets me manage my own cases with no intervention, but there are times when I go to him for advice, and he looks over my Motions before I file them with the Court. It is nice to have him there to ask for guidance as I begin my career.
I work in civil litigation, mostly representing people that get sued by large banks that normally would not have access to legal representation. My work is incredibly fulfilling, as I get to help people through a complicated and difficult time in their lives and provide them with a legal defense that would normally be out of their reach.
As a law student, you interned for CAIR Oklahoma for 2 semesters before joining the board of directors. How did you come to find out about CAIR and why did you choose to get involved with this organization?
I became involved in activism defending Muslims in this country long before I became Muslim. In college a speaker came to my campus, who was a Holocaust survivor. He came to my campus and told his horrific story that bears testament to what can happen when a group of people get singled out and blamed in society. After he told this story, he began singling out and blaming Muslims, calling them all terrorists and other names. I knew at the time that there were 3 Muslims on my campus, and none of them ever did anything wrong. I became involved in the Muslim Student Association, serving as the treasurer even before becoming Muslim, as there were not enough Muslims on my campus to fill the group up.
While I was still in school in Iowa, I learned about CAIR Oklahoma and the work being done in my home state during the publicity of the famous Sharia-Law case, which I followed rather closely while it was being litigated. When I decided that I wanted to move to Oklahoma City to start Law School, I made it my intention to get to know their Executive Director Adam Soltani and try to become a volunteer for CAIR.
I got to know Adam during Ramadhan in 2014 and I asked him many times to put me on the volunteer list. I still remember how nervous I was going into his office for the first time and getting a chance to sit down with him. It may seem like a small office in Oklahoma City, but the work that CAIR Oklahoma does is very significant. The first time I met Adam, I was very shy because I was always in awe of the work that he had done, and wanted to meet him for a long time.
When I got the opportunity to intern for CAIR Oklahoma, under Veronica Laizure in CAIR’s legal internship program, I jumped at the opportunity. In my internship, I got to learn so much about the issues happening to Muslims in Oklahoma and finally have a chance to do something about it. I had to come back for more because I was not satisfied with the little time I got to spend there. Finally, Veronica dubbed me the “Perpetual Intern,” and the board invited me to join, which is one of the greatest honors of my life. The work CAIR Oklahoma does is incredibly important for everyone.
What challenges have you faced as a Muslim convert living in Oklahoma, in our current atmosphere of heightened Islamophobia and xenophobia?
As a White-Muslim convert, I tend to blend in quite a bit (which is probably scaring any Islamophobes that are reading this article), so I tend to avoid a lot of in-your-face discrimination simply because most people do not know that I am Muslim. Even Muslims are surprised to this day if I say Salam (traditional Muslim greeting) back to another Muslim that doesn’t know me. This surprise and skepticism affected me most when I went to marry my wife in Lebanon, having to go through multiple interviews to attempt to prove that my faith was genuine.
Because I blend in, most of the issues that I face are from people that I know and love calling my loyalty into question, believing that I was no longer truly an American. This hurts on a lot of levels and can make one feel trapped between two worlds. Some people that have known me their entire life expressed fear that I was going to run off and join an extremist group. This was very difficult to deal with, but pales in comparison to what many of my Muslim brothers and sisters deal with on a daily basis. That fear is a new one for me now that my wife, who proudly wears the Hijab (Muslim head scarf), has joined me in the United States. I found that my fear was well-founded only weeks after she made her move here.
Oklahomans are generally very kind and welcoming; even if they do not appreciate Muslims or Islam, they typically treat people kindly face to face. People may look at my wife and me when we are in public, but they do not engage with us and most often attempt to smile. However, a couple of weeks after my wife made her move from Beirut to Oklahoma, I took her to New York to see a Broadway show. While we were in New York, a man verbally assaulted my wife on the street, screaming at her for an extended period. We were both very shocked. My religion is a religion of peace, but this man is very lucky that my first reaction was to hide my wife under my shoulder and keep him away from her. I just want to live in a world where everyone can live without fear of attack or harassment.
If there was one thing you would want others to know about Islam, what would it be?
Islam is a comprehensive religion that covers just about every situation that a person can possibly face, similar to modern secular laws. Islam has rules for marriage, rules of business, walking into a room, cooking and eating food, peace, and even war. Just like modern laws, Islam addresses and gives rules for all of these situations, in their proper time and context. If taken out of the proper time and context, these rules can be misused and abused. That is why, as a religion, religious knowledge and authority has been carefully guarded throughout history. Just because a few people take certain things out of their proper context, does not mean that Islam allows their behavior.
I want people to know that Muslims and non-Muslims are both against the people that misuse the Quran for violence and injustice. Islam aims to create a just and peaceful society, and anyone who stands in the way of that peace and justice is an enemy of this religion, even if they also claim to follow it.