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

"As Americans, we have to stand up to dog whistle politics and the fear mongering rhetoric that separates us," Mona Haydar tells PEOPLE

Photo: 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.

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.

“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.”

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