Locals joined the national effort to dispel myths about Islam and put a human face on a population that’s been the subject of stereotypes, public suspicion and in extreme cases, threats and violence.
Ahmad Bilal, Faiez Ahmad and Luqman Munir couldn’t have been better positioned to talk about being Muslims than the cultural crossroads of Fourth Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle on Saturday.
The trio, all members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, took part in the organization’s “Meet a Muslim Day,” an effort in cities around the country to dispel myths about Islam and put a human face on a population that’s been the subject of stereotypes, public suspicion and in extreme cases, threats and violence.
For three hours on a showery Saturday, the men stood among the throngs of tourists and St. Patrick’s Day parade spectators at a corner of Fourth and Pine with a sign that read, “I am a Muslim: Ask me anything.”
Young Muslims with similar signs fielded questions at Seattle’s Green Lake, University District and Pike Place Market, too.
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At Westlake, 30 or 40 people stopped by to speak with Bilal, Ahmad and Munir, including people who’d come for the parade, making for a vivid, impromptu cultural exchange.
The men showed off mobile-phone pictures of them posing with smiling, green-clad parade revelers.
They said they even had a productive discussion about Islam and Christianity with a man standing a few feet away holding a sign imploring onlookers to “repent and believe the gospel” of Jesus Christ.
“He gave us some knowledge and we gave him some knowledge,” said Bilal, a 20-year-old student at South Seattle College.
They invited the man to visit their mosque. He agreed to come, Bilal said.
While concerns about Islamophobia and the need for greater Muslim outreach have run high since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the controversy over President Donald Trump’s original and recently revised restrictions on certain Muslim immigrants and refugees gave those issues new urgency.
Violence and threats with religious overtones have become a pressing issue for other faiths, too. A spike in threats and incidents involving Jewish community centers, synagogues and cemeteries has put the nation’s Jewish community on edge.
In Kent, police are searching for a suspect who shot a Sikh man in what’s being investigated as a possible bias or hate crime, and in Kansas, two Indian computer engineers were shot by a gunman who yelled “get out of my country.” One of the victims in that shooting died.
Recent studies by the Pew Research Center show that most Americans don’t personally know a Muslim and that Americans are generally “cooler” toward Islam than other religious faiths. But getting to know someone who is Muslim leads to warmer feelings and more positive attitudes, their research suggests.
For Bilal, Ahmad and Munir, participating in Saturday’s event served as an opportunity to show that true Islam is about people like them, not the violent extremists who tend to capture headlines.
“I’m here to say that our religion is for peace; Islam is for peace,” Bilal said.
The men’s bold act comes on the heels of a visit to that very intersection in February by U.S. Marine and Muslim-American Mansoor Shams, who traveled the country with his own “Ask me anything” sign to encourage conversation about Islam with non-Muslims.
Bilal, who is Pakistani, said he lives with a host family in Seattle that once harbored negative attitudes about Islam, but having contact with him has changed their views.
The men know they won’t be able to end Islamophobia by themselves, but Munir is optimistic that events like Meet a Muslim Day will make a difference.
“Time heals,” he said. “We’ve just got to stick with our message.”
The men’s provocative sign asked passers-by to “ask me anything,” which might have led to some pretty awkward conversations. But most people simply expressed support rather than take them up on that offer.
“One lady asked me, ‘Do you want a hug?’” said Munir, a 25-year-old recent engineering grad. He said yes and the woman gave him a warm embrace.
Earlier, as Bilal walked to Westlake, a different woman who noticed the sign called out “I love you,” so Bilal shouted “I love you back.”
“Most people don’t care about religion,” Bilal said, recalling the encounter. “They care about peace.”