Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Stranger at the Gate: The Story of a Muslim Convert Gets Oscar Nomination

Retired US Marine Richard Mac McKinney hated Muslims so much that he planned to bomb an Islamic Center in the state of Indiana. His transformation is the subject of a documentary short film called "Stranger at the Gate." The film has already won a special jury prize at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It tells the story of how McKinney abandoned his plot and ended up converting to Islam.  

L to R: Mac McKinney, Jomo Willians, Dr. Mohammad Bahrami, Mrs. Bibi Bahrami

When Mac, a veteran of the US "global war on terror",  returned to Indiana in 2006, he was outraged by the presence of the local Muslim community who he saw as enemies.  During the periods he described to Joshua Seftel, the director of "Stranger at the Gate", as “between being drunk and sober,” he brainstormed how he could attack Muslims—an action he thought of as continuing to protect his family and serve his country.

He hatched a plot to bomb the Islamic Center of Muncie, Indiana on a Friday to "kill and injure at least 200 Muslims". But before carrying out his plot, he went to the mosque to check out the place where he met the Bahrami family, co-founders of the center and themselves Afghan refugees who arrived in the United States in the 1980s; and Jomo Williams, a Black local convert. The warm welcome he received at the mosque surprised him. Thus began his transformation that the film is about.  

There are probably many more such stories that have remained obscure. One such story is about Balbir Singh in India. Balbir participated in the demolition of the ancient Babri masjid in Ayodhya, India. Then he went through a transformation and embraced Islam. His new name is Mohammad Amir. He now builds mosques across India to wash away his guilt.  

"Stranger at the Gate" is directed and produced by Joshua Seftel. It is one of five films nominated in the "Best Documentary Short Film" category for an Oscar. The other four are: “The Elephant Whisperers,” “Haulout,” “How Do You Measure a Year?” and “The Martha Mitchell Effect." You can watch it on YouTube.


Riaz Haq said...

Opinion: A stranger planned to bomb my #mosque. He became a member instead. By Bibi Bahrami. THe story behind the documentary nominated for #Oscar. #Islamophobia #Muslim #Indiana #US

Bibi Bahrami is a co-founder of the Islamic Center of Muncie, Ind., and the subject of the new Oscar-nominated documentary “Stranger at the Gate,” executive produced by Malala Yousafzai.

Several years ago, an unfamiliar man showed up at my little mosque, a squat brick building on the side of a four-lane highway in Muncie, Ind. He had a large U.S. Marine Corps logo and a sketch of a small skull with a lightning bolt tattooed on his right arm. His face was flush, he barely made eye contact, and his fists were clenched. He seemed angry.

Naturally, we saw potential danger. In these days of intense cultural division, hatred against Muslims is palpable, and our places of worship have been the targets of terrible crimes. But we also sensed vulnerability in this stranger. My husband, an Afghan refugee and a gentle physician, welcomed the man with a heartfelt hug. Later, I sat alone with him in our mosque library — to share a smile and ask his name, to offer comfort and show him respect.

Why, you might ask, would I put myself in this position? When I was a young girl growing up in Afghanistan, I met troubled men like this at the homeless shelter run by my father. And when I fled the war in Afghanistan to a refugee camp in Pakistan as a teenager, I cared for many needy people. I have always believed in the idea that we must welcome the stranger, the person in need. And that if we search for common ground with all those we meet, we will discover our shared humanity, and we will all be better for it.

As the stranger and I sat on a green vinyl couch, surrounded by leather-bound books, he finally started to make eye contact. I learned that his name was Richard “Mac” McKinney, that he had served 25 years in the military, and that he had a wife and daughter. Over the next few weeks, Mac began making regular visits to the mosque, joining us for meals and sharing stories about his family and his time in the military.

I continually looked for ways to help him feel valued by entrusting him with responsibilities around the mosque: leading meetings, participating in prayers, even standing by the door as our resident security guard. I could tell this gave him a sense of purpose. Not long after that, he joined our community of about 200 by becoming a member of the mosque.

It wasn’t until months later that I heard unsettling rumors. Some congregants claimed they’d heard that when Mac first came to the mosque, he was on a reconnaissance mission. That he’d built a bomb to blow up the mosque and murder us.

I knew immediately what I needed to do. I invited Mac to my house for a meal of traditional Afghan food: homemade bread, chicken, kebabs, rice, eggplant, a green yogurt dip seasoned with cilantro and lime. He devoured the food. When he was done, I looked him in the eye.

“Is it true, Richard?” I asked. “Were you planning to kill us?”

He looked down. He was ashamed but answered honestly. He confessed that when he had first arrived at the mosque, he had planned to murder us by blowing up the building with an IED he had built himself.

“What were you thinking, Brother Richard?”

He explained that in the military, he had been at war with Muslims for years, and that he had developed a deep hatred in his heart. But he went on to say that the way we had treated him, with compassion and kindness, had changed his mind. He said we had given him a place to belong. We had shown him what true humanity is about.

Riaz Haq said...

#Pakistan arrests 129 #Muslims after mob attacks on churches and homes of minority #Christians. The violence drew nationwide condemnation, and caretaker Prime Minister Kakar ordered police to ensure rioters were arrested. #violence #Jaranwala

Police arrested 129 Muslims after a mob angered by an alleged Quran desecration attacked a dozen churches and nearly two dozen homes of minority Christians, officials said Thursday. Police also arrested two Christian men accused of defacing Islam’s holy book.

The alleged desecration set off a violent rampage Wednesday in Jaranwala, causing Christians to flee to safer places in the eastern city as the mob inflicted one of the country’s most destructive attacks on Christians.

The city police chief, Bilal Mehmood, said officers arrested Raja Amir and a friend who were accused by local Muslims of tearing pages from a Quran, writing insulting remarks on other pages and then throwing the book on the ground.

The regional police chief, Rizwan Khan, said 129 people had been arrested as suspected rioters and the situation was under control. Authorities summoned soldiers to restore order, and Christian residents slowly returned home to see the destruction Thursday.

“We were sitting at home when suddenly we heard that a mob is coming and it is burning homes and attacking churches,” Shazia Amjad said as she wept outside her charred home.

She said that the mob burned household items and furniture and that some of her possessions were stolen while she was staying with her family in a safer area.

Other Christians described similar ordeals and expressed bewilderment.

Azeem Masih wept as he sat outsisitting outside his home, which was one of several buildings burned on his street. He said some rioters brought in vehicles to haul away Christians’ household items after burning furniture and other belongings.

“Why did they do it to us? We had not done anything wrong,” he said.

Local priest Khalid Mukhtar said he believed most of Jaranwala’s 17 churches were attacked and his own home was damaged.

Government officials said all of the damaged churches and homes would be repaired within a week and those who suffered losses would be compensated.

The violence drew nationwide condemnation, and caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul-ul-Haq Kakar ordered police to ensure rioters were arrested.

The regional police chief said the mob quickly gathered and began attacking churches and Christian homes. Rioters also assaulted the offices of a city administrator, but police intervened, shooting into the air and wielding batons to disperse the attackers with the help of Muslim clerics and elders.

Videos and photos posted on social media show a throng of angry people descending on a church, throwing pieces of bricks and setting it on fire. In another video, four other churches are attacked, their windows broken as attackers throw pieces of furniture outside and set them on fire.

In another video, a man is seen climbing to the roof of a church and removing a steel cross after repeatedly hitting it with a hammer as a crowd cheers him on.

The violence drew condemnation from domestic and international human rights groups.

Amnesty International called for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or Islamic religious figures can be sentenced to death. While authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, often just an accusation can incite mobs to violence, lynchings and killings.

Rghts groups say blasphemy allegations have been used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal scores.

Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, urged Pakistan to conduct a full investigation. “We support peaceful freedom of expression and the right to freedom of religion and belief for everybody,” he said in Washington on Wednesday.