Days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, when there was a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes, Mansoor Shams decided it was time to do something about it.
“Given the current day climate … I came to realize that it’s time for people like myself to sort of come out of their comfort zone and and engage in conversation…That’s the only solution … within my abilities.”
Mansoor Shams was born in Pakistan and moved to the US at age 6. A former U.S. Marine who currently resides in Maryland, is traveling around the country and standing on street corners in U.S. cities and towns with a sign reading: “I’m Muslim and a U.S. Marine, ask anything.” His goal is to educate Americans about Islam, and counter a rise in anti-Muslim bigotry.
“The message is so important for people to see considering what’s going on in our political environment…There’s a consistent lack of knowledge and understanding of people who follow my faith.”
He recalled an encounter in Houston, Texas, that he said he’ll never forget.
“A gentleman walked by and he sort of stared me down in a very, very bad way,” Shams said.
Eventually the man came up to Shams asking him, “What did you say?”
Shams said he told the man, who appeared to be white and in his 50s, “‘You gave me an evil look, man!'”
“And I just stand there to see what’s about to happen, and he just sort of calms down,” Shams continued. “[He said] ‘You know, I just want to apologize to you. I didn’t read the whole sign.’ He only read the Muslim part.”
Shams said he then asked the man, what if that was all his sign said? He said his question led to a civil conversation in which the man said, “‘I’m sorry. You’re right. I’ve been ignorant. I feel like I’m being played like a pawn. Help me to understand.'”
The two would go on to exchange numbers and have kept in touch to this day.
For Mansoor, his status as a U.S. citizen and a former Marine places him in a unique position of privilege when it comes to countering anti-Muslim hate ― one he says he can’t turn away from.
“People are listening to me because I’m a Marine who served. I get that I earn a level of respect and trust where they can hear what I have to say,” Mansoor said. “I would love if the world we lived in was one where it wouldn’t matter whether I served.”
With the ultimate goal of making it to all 50 states, Shams has started a GoFundMe page to raise funds to support future travels.
“No matter what I get from the funding, I’m going to do this,” Mansoor said. “The need is greater than any dollar amount. I feel like I’m literally serving my country again ― a country that’s clearly quite divided these days ― by uniting us through conversation and getting out of my comfort zone.”