The Power of a Peaceful Presence
by Rebecca Brown
Note: this post contains some language not appropriate for younger readers.
The situation could have been volatile to say the least, yet with fortitude the Muslims on Riverview Drive and all those outside of Masjid Omar Ibn al-Kuttab practiced great restraint in the face of incredible offense.
Bullhorn in hand, the founder of “Real Street Preachers,” Ruben Israel Chavez, amplified his opening remarks across the mosque grounds: “Your prophet is a pedophile. Muslims are going to hell.” Projecting the most provocative things and (I would assume) attempting to solicit violence in response, he shouted, “I’m an infidel! I’m an infidel right in front of you, insulting your prophet! What are you going to do? Are you going to cut off my head?”
They continued, “Do any of these Muslims have a pilot’s license?” As Muslims began to walk by to enter the mosque, “Officer, we need to remove their pilot’s licenses… Does anyone even remember 9/11?!”
These street preachers shouted insults at women and children, telling one child, “The men inside that building” (pointing at the mosque) “will rape you.” And to one 30-something woman, “You’re waaaay too old to be his wife—and you’re waaaay too exposed! You need to cover that face up!” Counter-aggression or retaliation would have been justifiable.
But Basil Gohar, a leader at the mosque, looked calmly at Chavez and around, observing the situation. Gohar is a middle-aged, gentle, American-born Muslim man with kind eyes and a long beard. Many of the worshippers would be walking to the mosque from the surrounding neighborhood. His goal was to empower the rest of his community to pass to and from the Friday Prayer services without engaging these aggressive hatemongers.
After nearly two hours of berating, a Muslim man standing a dozen feet from the self-proclaimed street preachers replied to them with a strong, “Allahu akbar!” While practicing extreme self-restraint, the man couldn't help but cry out with this beautiful phrase meaning "God is the greatest" to challenge the disrespect directed at him and his community.
All of the Muslims that day chose the way of peace, demonstrating the power and beauty of self-discipline.
Peace Catalyst came that day because Basil had informed friends of Peace Catalyst International (the people at Riverview International Center, an organization that serves the many immigrants in the mosque’s neighborhood) earlier in the morning that a hate group was planning to arrive during Friday Prayers: “I do not want to put anyone into any kind of danger or undue stress or conflict, but because you are our neighbors on our street, I felt you should know this is happening.”
After hearing from Basil, we organized a response within the hour. Over the course of the afternoon, dozens of people came to support the Muslim community. We came not as counter-protesters but to provide safe passage for the Muslims as they were going to pray and to help diffuse the high-risk situation.
These instigators from out of town—about 10 of them, including three children—showed up a few minutes before the start of two prayer services, the equivalent to Sunday morning service for the Christian community. It was incredible the amount of havoc they created with even a group this small.
I’ve never arranged a nonviolent resistance action before, but I learned what I could from PCI’s 2015 action in Arizona, and the plan was for the Peaceful Presence group (folks who responded to Peace Catalyst’s call to action), to spread out along the sidewalk to take up space and escort worshippers past the yelling men.
As the street preachers set up shop, we formed a little group across the driveway entrance to the mosque from the hate group.
At one point I lifted my 10 month-old baby out of her stroller and carried her over to Chavez and the megaphone. “You need to step away from here,” he said to me. “This megaphone will hurt her ears,” our feet just inches apart. “Yes, that really would be a shame for you to use that with her right here,” I said gently and calmly.
Many of the members of this Muslim community are immigrants, and many do not speak English. To say the experience was confusing for these people is an understatement.
Throughout the afternoon more Peaceful Presence people showed up, along with people from other groups coming to counter-protest. I taught the supporters how to say “hello” and “goodbye” in Arabic and encouraged them to smile. We escorted confused women, elderly folks, children, and men past the street preachers as they gingerly tried to make it in and out of the mosque.
Those in support of the Muslims experienced true solidarity as we were also subjected to the violence of verbal blows. I reminded our folks that Jesus was silent in face of his accusers (Mark 14:61) and encouraged them to practice restraint.
Most there experienced personal, and often graphic, ridicule: “You’re a lezbo!” to any woman with short hair. “You’re probably not even married—you whore! You’re the worst mom in the world. How old is your baby? Give her about nine years and these men will have sex with her...” to me as I walked by smiling, baby on my hip. To the men, “Why are you so weak? You let these women come out here and do a man’s job, you’re not even a man!” One preteen burst into tears as a man screamed at her mother, his veins bulging while he leaned in.
Some were moved to tears by the presence of such hate emanating from this group. When I stopped to get water and check in with my toddler I found myself shaking… yet we came willingly. We were glad to have some of the vitriol directed at us rather than only at the unsuspecting people who has simply come to their place of worship to pray.
Why did we show up and experience such ridicule ourselves? It’s really simple: we thought, “If we were in this predicament, we would want love and support.” So we followed Jesus’ teaching and provided that for our Muslim neighbors.