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Brief Encounters of the Muslim Kind

I have always found that the most effective way to counter bigotry is via face-to-face human interaction. But when you're up against all caps and seven exclamation points, not to mention a mountain of artillery, lawsuits can become necessary.
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Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Raja'ee Fatihah, a Muslim-American Army reservist who was denied service at an Oktaha gun range based solely on his religion. According to the lawsuit, the Save Yourself Survival and Tactical Gun Range had posted a sign that read:





After entering this fine establishment, Mr. Fatihah filled out some necessary paperwork before identifying himself as Muslim. At that point, the two defendants, Chad Neal and Nicole Mayhorn Neal, armed themselves and demanded to know whether he was there for "jihad," accusing him of wanting to murder them because his "Sharia law" required such action.

In response, Mr. Fatihah calmly attempted to educate the defendants about the prohibition of murder in Islam, but they weren't having it. Convinced that they understood Mr. Fatihah's religion better than he did and that this justified their refusal to serve him, the defendants proceeded--in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Oklahoma law--to refuse him service and demand that he leave the premises, which he did.

By Mr. Fatihah's own account, he "wasn't looking for any trouble," and I believe him. By attaching a name and a face to "Muslim," he had hoped to challenge the fear and ignorance it takes to post a sign like that.

While I wouldn't be caught dead at a gun range, I share and respect Mr. Fatihah's intentions upon entering that establishment. I have always found that the most effective way to counter bigotry is via face-to-face human interaction. But when you're up against all caps and seven exclamation points, not to mention a mountain of artillery, lawsuits can become necessary.

Nonetheless, it's worth remembering that legal action is and should remain a last resort. Often, significant change can result from seemingly insignificant encounters.

I have been to Oklahoma a grand total of once. About ten years ago, driving through Tulsa, I stopped at a diner for a grilled-cheese sandwich. I was traveling alone and engaged in my one of my favorite pastimes--eavesdropping on other people's conversations--when affronted with an increasingly familiar phenomenon: people talking about me without realizing they were talking about me.

Like most Muslim women I know and unlike most Muslim women I see on television, I do not cover my hair, so I am not easily identifiable as Muslim. Combined with my penchant for listening in on strangers' conversations, this means that I have overheard countless exchanges about "those poor oppressed Muslim women over there."

As a privileged liberated Muslim woman over here, I generally reserve my preaching for the page. But not that day.

A group of women were engaged in what sounded like a book club at the table behind me, and within a period of less than a few minutes, I heard them reference all of the most controversial and perennially mistranslated verses of the Qur'an available. Basically, the Qur'an according to Fox News.

At this point, I took my first good look around and quickly noticed that among the several dozen staff and patrons, I boasted the most melanin in the room despite being more burnt sienna than umber.

After paying the bill, fully prepared to make a quick getaway, I approached the book club. Noting what I had overheard, I told them that I felt compelled to introduce myself, and driven by the same inclinations that no doubt inspired Mr. Fatihah, I did.

At the very least, the results of this encounter point to key differences between brunching mothers and gun-range owners that should make us all grateful that the former far outnumber the latter. Upon introducing myself as a Muslim writer and attorney who happened to be driving through their state that day, an audible gasp arose from the table.

"But you're so pretty," one of the women said. "And you're a lawyer?" another asked. The whole table appeared visibly perplexed. Clearly I wasn't the monstrous illiterate they had apparently just read about. Most of them had never met a Muslim in person, at least not knowingly. And while I found their remarks distasteful, I could also tell that ignorance, not hatred, was responsible. They politely invited me to sit down, and we talked for about ten minutes at most.

Simply by introducing myself as one of more than 1.5 billion Muslims accounting for nearly a quarter of the global human population, I reified Islam for them. Though I don't remember exactly what we spoke about, I do know that upon leaving that table, half-a-dozen Oklahomans were changed. At the very least, none could ever again say that she had never met a Muslim.

Shortly thereafter, I received an email from one of the women. The book club had just finished reading my first book, War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims, and she wanted to let me know that they had enjoyed it. While I hope the book played a part in changing their attitudes toward Islam, Muslims and Muslim women in particular, I am confident that those few minutes sitting together had more impact than any book every could.

Admittedly, these women were few in number, but then again, so are the business owners dumb enough to put up signs banning Muslims from their establishments. I take great inspiration from Mr. Fatihah's courage to stand up and demand justice in light of the illegal discrimination he experienced in Oktaha.

Still, my greatest hope for this country rests outside the courtroom, in all of the small encounters that--and I say this as a lawyer and a writer--will never result in lawsuits or headlines.

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