Mohammad Zafar was walking down the street minding his own business when he heard it. An angry, fierce voice yelled something he had heard many times before: “Go back to your country!” He instinctively looked around, wondering who they were talking to. Surely, he would come to that person’s defense and offer any help he could. But there was no one else. They were talking to Mohammad.
The comment is nonsensical because most American Muslims don’t have a country to “go back to.” This is their country. Despite that, American Muslims are regularly subjected to hateful comments -- especially Muslim women in hijab or Muslim men, like Mohammad Zafar, that have a long beard.
It’s disturbing that a young man walking down the street in Minnesota would be regularly subjected to hate for no reason. It’s even more disturbing that he was targeted solely based on his race and religion. However, what makes Mohammad’s case so egregious is that he is a former United States Marine.
Not only is this Mohammad’s country, but he proudly and honorably served it. He risked his life for it.
Mohammad is a recipient of the prestigious Minnesota Veterans Voices Award, presented to veterans who have made “exceptional contributions to the community.” His full-time job involves working with returning veterans, assisting them with the Minnesota GI bill at a local university. Earlier this month, he was featured by Twin Cities Public Television for promoting fitness in his neighborhood.
I wasn’t the only one outraged by the stranger's comments. The outpouring of support on Mohammad’s Facebook post, where he shared the incident, was overwhelming. He jokingly responded, “Which home? Eaganistan? Saint Paulistan? or Bunrsvilistan? After a while I just stop saying things. If my kids were with me, then I would talk to them so they don't feel afraid.”
Whether friends, neighbors, interfaith leaders, educators or government officials, people refuse to be silent. Sometimes it’s only one or two brave individuals, other times entire communities band together against hate. These are people of courage.
Columbia Heights, which is home to one of the first mosques in Minnesota, recently demonstrated that courage when faced with Islamophobia. On September 9, school board member Grant Nichols allegedly posted a comment on Facebook calling Muslims “unsanitary.” The community response was tremendous and immediate.
The school board held a special meeting to remove Nichols from the board, failing by just one vote. You can see in the media interviews how visibly upset the students and others were as a result of the decision. The following day, nearly 1000 Columbia Heights high school students organized a walk out, joined by the principal and faculty.
Even Governor Mark Dayton got involved, visiting the school and taking a bold position. He said, “I think he [Nichols] should resign or be forced to resign. There’s no place for that anywhere in Minnesota, but certainly not for the leader of a school district.”
At the September 22 school board meeting, Columbia Heights teachers organized a demonstration. Hundreds of community members returned to protest and stand in solidarity with Muslim students. Five Columbia Heights principals asked for a resolution, introduced by school board chairman John Larkin, that urged Nichols to resign.
Despite his refusal to formally resign, Nichols is essentially done leading the Columbia Heights community. Calls for his resignation will continue but the community has already spoken. They have sent a strong message in support of religious freedom.
Islamophobia is real and it’s ugly. But love, community and solidarity follow. As we watched a Muslim kid in Texas get handcuffed and arrested for bringing a clock to school, we also saw the outpouring of support on social media, from invitations to the White House to college offers and scholarships.
Ultimately, it comes down to defining ourselves. Who speaks for our community? We cannot allow a few vocal individuals to speak for us and allow hate and bigotry to define who we are as Americans.
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The clamor of the good people, the people of courage, must prevail.