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Human Interest

Meet the Young Muslim Woman Fighting Against 'the Hijacking of My Religion' in the Aftermath of Terrorist Attacks

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Allison Michael Orenstein

Mona Haydar knows the way some people feel about Muslims in the wake of recent terrorist attacks.

Just weeks after the horrific San Bernardino, Calif., shooting in December, where Islamic extremists killed 14 people and wounded 22 others, Haydar was at an airport looking to buy frozen yogurt. Suddenly, a man came up to her and whispered menacingly in her ear, “You killed my people.”

“It was gut-wrenching and so startling,” recalls Haydar, 27, in this week’s issue. “I kind of lost my breath. And then I thought, ‘If you knew me, you wouldn’t say that.’ ”

Haydar put that thought into action, launching her Ask a Muslim program in Cambridge, Mass. Every week she sets up signs outside the Cambridge Public Library and invites passersby to stop and ask about her Muslim beliefs and traditions over free coffee and donuts.

“I’ve had such a positive experience. It’s been inspiring to people, and Muslims feel the support,” says Haydar, a performance poet who lives in Duxbury, Mass., with her husband, Sebastian Robins, 43, and their 2-year-old son Safi.

A message to my Muslim family: The world is watching you whether you like it or not. A few thoughts: Please — 1. Don't pander. It's insincere and everyone can feel it. 2. Reject the narrative that we are all capable of being radicalized by virtue of simply being Muslim. It's just untrue. All humans are capable of terrible things regardless of creed. Also- It's not enough to be non-violent. We must be vocally pro-justice, anti-violence, anti-racist and anti-judgmental. 3. Be nice and courteous. Being generally a nice person all the time to everyone will help you in all facets of your life and this is one of the central messages from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be prayer and peace. He came to make you a nicer person and to help you know that you must care for others as you care for yourself. 4. Love yourself. You are as welcome and wanted as you want to be. You are a human citizen of this planet Earth. Embrace yourself as the love you are. Loving yourself will make you love everyone else too. And that's your duty as a Muslim. 5. Everyone and anyone you meet is a creature of God, created by God to coexist with you in this moment in history and time. Embrace that and love everyone. That is our way: The way of Love❤️❤️❤️#AskAMuslim

A post shared by Mona Haydar (@themostmona) on

And after the deadly terror attacks in Brussels on Monday, she says her program is needed now more than ever.

“I’m in deep mourning for the loss of life and violence and for the continued hijacking of my religion,” she says. “It’s so heartbreaking and furthers our drive to wholeheartedly stand up against any and all acts of violence – no matter the perpetrators.

“Our #AskAMuslim project was us standing up to ISIS and their sick and twisted understanding of what Islam teaches. Anti-violence and pro-justice acts of love are a part of my path and work in the world as a Muslim.

“As Americans, we have to stand up to dog whistle politics and the fear mongering rhetoric that separates us. Acts of violence make it all the more obvious that those of us who believe in love need to work even harder to counter hate and violence to manifest our more beautiful world.”

Haydar, whose parents came to the U.S. from Syria in the ’60s, has gained a loyal following, both in the Cambridge area and on social media.

Today I stepped out of my comfort zone and stood out in a public space holding a box of donuts in front of signs that my husband Sebastian made. "Talk to a Muslim" "Free coffee and donuts" "Ask a Muslim" "Free conversation." Everyone who stopped to talk to us was so kind and sweet. "Thanks for doing this" was the most common comment and often followed by, "I'm sorry about what's happening in our country right now. It makes me so sad." One woman was on the verge of tears and wanted to know when we were coming back so she could bring a box of donuts for us to give out. Funny things happened too. Some people just wanted the coffee but didn't have a question and were relieved when they didn't have to ask a question to get coffee. Lol. Others wanted to talk about their own religions and that was fun for us for sure. One of the most heart warming moments was when a high school aged Muslim boy came over and said "I'm so glad you're doing this! Can I take your picture!?" We weren't out there that long today but the take away was clear: Keep your heads held high, dear Muslim family. The world is a good and beautiful place with small pockets of hatred here and there. There is an overwhelming amount of love and so remember this post when you are faced with bigotry and hatred towards you or your faith. Remember that you have supporters too. When you are faced with difficulty, remember that ease is right around the corner. Remember that you are as American as apply pie. And I ask you now, since we did this in Cambridge right near the cafe where in Goodwill Hunting Matt Damon asks, "How bout them apples?" How about em? 😉 #askamuslim

A post shared by Mona Haydar (@themostmona) on

“Mona has been totally welcomed here,” says Paula Rockwood, 64, who’s stopped by her stand several occasions.

Adds Kevin Mahony, 56, another regular: “How can you demonize a whole huge section of people and all you know about them is what you see on TV?”

Haydar says she’s empowered by the positive feedback and plans to keep her program going for the foreseeable future.

“It’s about dialogue and humanizing each other,” she says. “I’m a Muslim, but first I’m human.”

Haydar adds, “Love is my religion.”