A new anti-Islam Facebook group, Global Rally for Humanity, is planning protests of Muslims at mosques nationwide Oct. 9 and 10. The protests appear to be aimed at countering a Nation of Islam event this weekend marking the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
If the Facebook mobilization goes viral, many places of worship may face armed and potentially dangerous protesters. As an American Muslim hijab-wearing mother of two young children, the prospect of more hate rallies scares me, considering that I frequently get terrorist epithets shouted at me in public.
What should I do? Stay home for Friday prayers and ignore the growing national expressions of hatred? Or counter such bigotry with love and flowers?
Some Muslim leaders will undoubtedly argue that if we ignore these anti-Islam protests, we can delegitimize their movement. Confrontation leads to validation, they argue, which will advance their hate-filled agenda, particularly in the media. But the rhetoric and national discourse on Muslims have become so vitriolic and socially acceptable that we can no longer ignore such actions, hoping they’ll just go away.
I’m reminded of a popular saying by the Prophet Mohammed, “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.”
But let’s face it, we need to do more than speak out or pray for divine intervention. One of the hardest aspects of being a Muslim in America is practicing what we preach. We need to use our hands, as advised by our prophet. Not fists-raised-up-in-the-air-angry hands. But open-our-palm-for-a-shake hands.
The best way to counter Islamophobia is through engagement.
At a previous armed rally at a mosque in Phoenix, around 250 protesters were met by a group of local Muslims despite calls for the community to ignore the protests. Two anti-Islam protesters accepted an offer to go inside the mosque and meet the worshipers. Both Jason Leger, who wore a “F*** Islam” T-shirt, and Paul Griffin had a change of heart by the time they came out.
“Out of respect for the Islamic people, knowing what I know now, because I have talked to them and spoke to them, no I would not do that again, just because I don’t want to offend or hurt those people,” Leger told Fox News.
“When I took a second to actually sit down and listen to them, and actually enter their mosque, and go in and watch some of their prayers, it is a beautiful thing, and they answered some of the questions that I had.”
The fact is engagement works. A face-to-face meeting can more effectively change attitudes than any Op-Ed or TV interview. Certainly, many American Muslims and organizations have been doing great interfaith work at local and national levels for many years. But such grassroots efforts remain extremely slow, arduous and sometimes dangerous, especially in an atmosphere where it’s socially acceptable to bring weapons to a mosque protest and make threats against Muslims.
A Huffington Post/YouGov poll  on perceptions of Muslims reveals that more than half the country has either a “somewhat” or “very unfavorable” view of Islam. This translates into most states having introduced or passed legislation banning Shariah, or Islamic law.
Another recent poll  revealed that 40% of Republicans in North Carolina say Islam should be illegal, and 72% say a Muslim should not be president.
This survey comes after two high-profile political fear-mongering episodes by Republican presidential candidates. Dr. Ben Carson has stated that he does not advocate having a Muslim as president.
And Donald Trump recently agreed with a questioner at a rally in New Hampshire, who said that Muslims are a problem in the country and asked, “when can we get rid of ‘em?”
“A lot of people are saying that,” Trump had replied. “We’re gonna be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
Such anti-Muslim statements by public officials pave the way for further Islamophobia in our nation. Yes, individual Muslims and organizations must work harder to engage neighbors and interfaith members to put a human face on a people and religion often misunderstood and demonized in the media.
But public officials and media pundits, who steal headlines and sound bites, regularly paint Muslims as terrorists. They, too, have a responsibility to stop the political Islamophobic rhetoric and lead with civility when discussing policy issues that directly affect members of our faith.
Until national conversations involving Muslims and Islam take a more respectful tone, Muslims can only expect more xenophobic statements, political jockeying and hate rallies in the coming years.
Meanwhile, when the next anti-Islam protest comes to my local mosque, I’ll be there, armed and dangerous, with a bouquet of roses. Where will you be? Join our anti-hate campaign at #ArmedWithFlowers to show that love and communication is the only weapon against hate.