Wednesday, May 24, 2017

USA: I’m A Muslim, Ask Me Anything

"If you’re not condemning terrorism, your accepting it, which is grossly unfair and inaccurate but it’s the situation we find ourselves in so I choose to embrace it.”

Photo Jim Ferretti
Times of Ahmad | News Watch | US Desk
Source/Credit: KXL 101 FM News
By Jim Ferretti | May 23, 2017

Portland, Ore. —  For me, walking up and talking to someone is pretty simple.  Probably because it’s part of my job to talk to people and ask them to tell me their story.  So when I saw the two men with “I’m A Muslim, Ask Me Anything” t-shirts on at Washington Square, I had to stop.

I walked up to the table the two men were sitting at.  There were small cakes and cups of coffee on the table, along with a sign that offered food and a conversation.

“Good afternoon gentlemen, my name is Jim Ferretti, I am a reporter for FM News 101 KXL.  May I have some of your time?”

I was greeted by Harris Zafar with strong handshake and his friend.  I asked if I could record our conversation and find out more about what they were doing.  Harris who is a National Spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community asked me to sit and we started.

“This is an effort by our community, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community,” Harris said, “We’ve been doing it here at this mall for the past 5-months, every Saturday we’re here from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m..  The ultimate goal is to spur dialog.”

He told me that every week they do have a guest or two that come to their mosque and that is great, but he says some are not comfortable.

“Pew research came out with a poll that said 62% of Americans don’t know a Muslim, it made sense that people have this rising fear and misunderstanding of Islam because they’ve never met a Muslim or they don’t know one.  So we decided to make ourselves uncomfortable by sitting in a public space, wearing theses gimmicky shirts, to spur some conversation. And it’s been a tremendous experience so far.”

I wanted to know what kind of conversations he has had while there.  He told me by far the most prevalent are people who simply come up, shake their hands and say thank you.  Harris also said that some want selfies, that’s when we joked how odd it was to think about a “Selfie With A Muslim”.

“A lot of people have wanted to know what we thought on the election,” Harris said, “but I think the most prevalent questions after that surrounds terrorism, ISIS, how do we make sense of them, what’s our response to what they’re doing, things like Islamic Law or Sharia.  We’ve had people come who are staunch supporters of the President, I remember a lady who was visibly very uncomfortable being here.  That’s why I commended her, she sat with us and she had this theory that once Muslims are 18% of the population, they’re going to take over control of the United States.  I had never heard that before, so I was fascinated by that.  That’s the type of person I’m trying to find.”

While Harris says the goal is the help people understand and learn, he tells me he too is learning and is being enriched as a result of speaking to strangers in the mall.

“I think humans thrive when we interact with one another and get to know one another.  It does make you more of an enriched person.”

As we sat talking, I listened to Harris talk, but I also watch people walking by to see their reactions.  Most walked by without showing any signs that they noticed the bright blue t-shirts they were wearing.  Some glanced and smiled, while a few I noticed seemed, well upset or turned off that Harris was doing what they were doing.  One man I noticed who walked by with a woman, even shook his head no with what I can only describe as a disgusted look on his face.

I don’t know if Harris saw that as well but as that was happening, he said this to me. “We’re not here to convert anyone, we’re not street preaching or telling anyone they’re going to hell.  This is just about having a conservation which is why we call it coffee, cake and true Islam.”

There are 70 chapters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community around the U.S. and this idea of sitting in a public place and talking came from the national leadership of the community.  “They said we’ve been doing a lot of events at the mosques, interfaith events, we’ve been doing blood drives and adopt a highway cleanups.  We’re out there but it seems like some people just don’t understand and we saw that this election cycle with so many people who were fearful of us.”

Harris is an American, born and raised here with a wife and three children.  One of the insults I have heard several times whether it’s in person, in writing or on the air is, they should just go back home.  “I’m an American,” Harris said “I was born and raised in the United States, so anytime someone says go back home.  That’s Tigard.” He laughed, “I don’t know what else they mean by that. I mean okay, I’ll go back because my kids are waiting for me there.  So I think that kind of breaks down the misunderstanding.  To see a Muslim and hear one that sounds just like us, you know us like Americans, breaks down some misunderstandings as well.”

One of the hot questions asked of Muslims Americans is, what’s it like to be a Muslim American living in today’s world.  I asked Harris what its’ like for him? “I mean I think for me the Muslim American experience has been very similar to the American experience.  I have the day to day stress of my job, career advancement with being a husband and being a father of three children. Taking care of their homework and the day to day life that everyone else has. What makes it a bit of an exception is I pause 5 times a day to pray to God.   To have this on going relationship with him, that’s what Islam emphasizes.  It’s not something you do once a week in some building, prayer is part of your day to day life. Beyond that because I am very vocal and an activist, I love to break down misunderstandings, I do put myself out there.” He called it a unique experience. “It’s almost like you have to be an activist, because I’ve heard the sentiment, silence means acceptance.  If you’re not condemning terrorism, your accepting it, which is grossly unfair and inaccurate but it’s the situation we find ourselves in so I choose to embrace it.”

Ever since the election of President Trump, fear is a word that is often heard in the media.  Whether it’s the fear of radical Islam, or the fear Muslims Americans have. “I certainly know Mulsims who have fear, um, I think the largest percentage of Muslims who have fear are immigrants. I don’t sense as much fear from Muslims who were born and raised here in the United States.  For myself I’m not afraid, in fact, three days after the election on our weekly prayer service I was asked to give the sermon and lead the prayer.  And so you walk into the Mosque and people have this kind of stunned look on their faces. How did this happen? That Donald Trump won.  And so I focused my sermon on that as well because I also spent time reflecting on this.  And where the Quran says that who ever holds tight to their relationship with God, that none can overtake them.  So if you have a strong relationship with God, there’s no reason to be afraid.  And there’s other versus of the Quran that say there may be something you dislike, but God sees good in it for you.  So with those types of sentiments, I choose not to be afraid, I choose to be hopeful because I have so much faith in God that he ultimately  would not allow anything to happen that would be detrimental to us.  Even if is a negative experience temporarily, it’s for some cause, and we ultimately have that trust.  I’m not afraid by any stretch of the imagination.”

I ended our conversation by asking him what was the one message he wanted to make sure got out.

“I would like people to know that they have Muslim neighbors, that are yearning to meet them and just get to know them.  And are partners with everyone in making sure our streets are safe, our country is safe, that we eradicate any form of extremism or radicalization. That there are clean streets for our kids.  That’s what we’re here for and we generally have an open door policy, we have nothing to hide.  So they can come to the Rizwan Mosque, they can find us on, or they can find us here at the mall every Saturday 2 to 4.  That’s my biggest message I would like to deliver to my fellow Oregonians, is we’re here and we just want conversation.  Even if they have concerns about Islam, we won’t be offended. We’ll just have a conversation.”

I then asked him if I was saying Muslim wrong, Harris told me he has been called worse, smiled and said there are many ways to say it.  I said like Oregon and Ore-E-GONE.  That’s when he told me he would take exception with that and of course it’s Oregon!

We shook hands, and parted ways.  Me back to my family at the Lego store, Harris still at the table waiting for another person to stop, shake a hand and simply just say hi.  Trust me, it’s not difficult to do.

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