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Courage from the Other Side

Love at an Anti-Sharia Protest

Courage from the Other Side 

by Johnny Martin

I woke up on an early June morning last summer with plans to attend the ‘Anti-Sharia Protest’ event in Paradise Valley, about 30 miles from my home in Mesa, Arizona. There had been a lot of media attention in the days leading up to the demonstration, which was being called an “Islamophobic hate rally” by some and a “peaceful human rights gathering” by others. I stopped by Target on the way there to buy poster board and markers for my signs, which probably would have said “This Muslim says NO to religious laws in the U.S.” or “I’m an American Muslim & I love the Constitution,” or maybe even “This Muslim says NO to religious laws in the U.S.” My goal was to find common ground with folks who might have never met a Muslim before; people with whom I surely had disagreements with, but who might also be open-minded enough to let us get to know each other as neighbors.

You might think it sounds silly for a Muslim to go to an anti-Islam event, but according to ACT for America's Facebook page for the protest, they claimed to be demonstrating specifically against female genital mutilation and child marriages – two things I completely abhor and would absolutely stand against as an American and a Muslim. I thought if I showed them that we had this common ground, we might be able to stand together in support of human rights and that some of the folks with negative ideas or opinions about Muslims might change their minds a bit after meeting one. 

Love Fest: Rally for Unity – Photo:    AZ Resist

Love Fest: Rally for Unity – Photo: AZ Resist

When I arrived in Paradise Valley, I checked in at the “Love Fest: Rally for Unity,” which was on the other side of the park from where the anti-Sharia event would be, because I knew many of my friends and allies would be gathered there. Love Fest was a counter-demonstration of sorts, organized by U.S. Senate candidate Deedra Abboud. It felt very safe and comfortable for me there. We had pride flags and love glasses and equality stickers and folks from all walks of life talking about how to support each other and work together to protect the vulnerable populations in our state. It felt like I was right where I belonged to be honest; but, in another way, it also felt like this was a comfort zone I needed to step outside of. And besides, I thought, if there’s anyone who ought to be going over there to directly confront those right-wing groups spreading hatred and fear against Muslims, shouldn't it be someone who also has the privilege of feeling less threatened in that space? Someone like a white man?

Still, I had a hard time deciding if I should really go to the other side of the park, where I knew there would be guns and anger and fear, possibly directed at me and most certainly at my religion. I had seen military and police trucks when I was driving by and a huge crowd of people with protest signs, surrounded by several different commando groups carrying rifles. I started losing the courage to go and thought I’d just make different signs and stay at the Love Fest.

That’s when I noticed her: a woman standing near the edge of our crowd, just off the sidewalk, looking nervous and quite out of place with her homemade anti-Sharia protest sign. At first I thought she had come over from the other event to counter-protest our Rally for Unity, but after watching her for a moment I realized that she was lost and had accidentally come to the wrong side of the park while looking for the other demonstration.

I wondered, does she feel safe here?

Her sign said something at the top about “Love” and “Courage”, and underneath that only Jesus Christ could “break the curse of Sharia” on the world. Some people around her were chastising her and taking pictures of her sign, but she clearly didn’t know where she was. I walked up to her and introduced myself. We shook hands and shared a smile.

“So, um...are you in the wrong place?” I asked, trying to find out where to start. “Well, no,” she stumbled, seeming unsure, and started explaining that God had called her to be here for the protest against Islam. “Oh! That’s a different event actually, on the other side of the park. I know it’s kind of confusing, but this is a separate event to show support for the Muslim community and other groups, like immigrants, refugees, and the LGBT community.” She realized what was happening but stood her ground. “Well it doesn’t matter,” she said. “God loves everyone. God is love."

“I completely agree. And I saw your sign about Jesus, so I felt peace in my heart about coming over here and talking to you,” I replied. “But I have to ask...do you feel safe here?” She paused for a moment and we took in the scene around us.

Then she replied, “As long as I’m with God and the truth, why should I be afraid?"

I explained to her that I wanted to know if she felt safe here because I was planning on going to the other protest. “I’m an American Muslim,” I said, “And I wanted to know if you thought I would be safe if the tables were turned. You know, if I went over to the other event."

I offered to walk her over there, and she offered to stand with me if I wanted to listen to what was happening at the anti-Sharia rally. During the walk we laughed, asked questions about each other, and expressed our mutual desire for peace and harmony among different groups.

I felt nervous at the anti-Sharia protest to be sure, but I honestly would never have gone there at all without that woman and her Jesus sign standing right beside me. And although I didn't have the courage to bring my own signs, I do think I changed one person’s mind about Muslims that day.

As I went to leave, she hugged me and said, “God bless you. I’m very glad we met."