As a Muslim, father and Oregonian, I thank Friday’s heroes


Guest Opinion Published on Oregonlive website on May 27th, 2017

On Friday, Portland was shaken by an attack on a train that targeted two teenage girls and led to the deaths of two bystanders. As the details emerge, we discover that the suspect, 35-year-old Jeremy Joseph Christian, allegedly set his sights on the teenagers — one of whom was wearing the Muslim hijab — and began shouting hate and racist speech, including that they should get out of the country, Muslims should die and accusing Muslims of killing Christians. As he approached the two terrified teenagers, three other passengers came to their aid by standing up and intervening. That’s when Christian reportedly took out a knife and attacked the three passengers, brutally killing two by slashing their throats and injuring the third.

As an American Muslim who has lived in Portland for 31 years, I went numb when I learned about this attack. This is my city, a city that not only is full of loving and tolerant people but also one that has consistently shown its character at times of difficulty. After 9/11, my mosque (the Portland Rizwan Mosque) stood out as being the first and oldest mosque built in Portland. Although we received a handful of threatening calls, we received more than 200 calls of support. People lined our doors with flowers and messages of support, reminding us that we are welcome as neighbors here in our home.

But yesterday’s attack opened my eyes. First, I learned that despite the tolerance, ignorance and fear still lives within people here in my city. Pew Research reported in 2014 that 62 percent of Americans don’t know a Muslim, which explains why so many Americans are convinced that Islam and/or Muslims stand against the values and freedoms of our country. If you don’t know a Muslim, how will you ever know whether the hyped narrative online is true? Even here in Portland, this ignorance is providing fertile soil for hatred and fear to grow.

But I also learned what true character, valor and courage look like. These three men who protected these teens put themselves at risk by standing up for those who could not do so for themselves. They are real-life heroes. My heart and prayers are with the families of these heroes. Your lives are changed forever, but please be proud of your loved one and know that they have inspired countless people with their courage and integrity. And as a man of faith, I am convinced that God will reward them in the afterlife, where I pray they find eternal peace.

Finally, as a Muslim I learned that I have much work to do. I am proud of the interfaith and outreach work that we have done within the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, but we failed to reach Jeremy Christian, whose Facebook page demonstrates that his far-right extremist views were never resolved. For the past five months, I have been sitting for two hours every Saturday at Washington Square Mall to meet people and give everyone an opportunity to meet a Muslim. It’s part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s nationwide initiative “Coffee, Cake and True Islam,” which is meant to remove ignorance through conversation. We are there every Saturday and will seek more ways to make ourselves available.

To the unnamed heroes and the many courageous souls who tended to the victims and even chased after Christian when he fled the scene, I thank you. As a Muslim, as an Oregonian, as an American, as a father and as a human, I thank you for showing me that humanity and honor are still alive. To all my fellow Americans and Oregonians, I ask you to honor these heroes, but I also ask you to inculcate that same spirit of courage within yourselves to destroy any ignorance, fear or hatred that may live in your heart. You will find in me a partner in that cause.



About the author

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Harris Zafar

Harris Zafar serves as National Spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and is author of the book “Demystifying Islam: Tackling the Tough Questions.” Harris addresses issues facing Islam and the Muslim world in various media and also elucidates the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s nationwide efforts towards pluralism and understanding. As National Director of Faith Outreach for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, he encourages Muslim youth, in particular, to speak out about the true, peaceful and tolerant teachings of Islam.

Harris is a frequent speaker and lecturer about Islam at conferences, universities, schools, churches and other public events. He has spoken in cities such as London, New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Seattle and Portland. Harris is also an Adjunct Professor at two colleges, teaching classes about Islam. He has appeared on several national and local news programs to provide commentary on current issues from an Islamic perspective and to explain what Muslim Americans are doing to combat intolerance.

His approach to religion is based on rational discourse and justice.

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