Urging Portlanders to 'Talk to a Muslim'
When you first pass Harris Zafar in the seating area of the Washington Square Mall atrium, you might think he's just a casual shopper who is taking a break to visit with a friend over some coffee and pastries.
But then you notice his bright blue T-shirt, layered over a pressed button-down, that bears the words, "Talk to a Muslim." And if your eyes happen to meet Zafar's, you'll see his face break into a warm smile, maybe notice his hand gesture in a friendly wave.
"That happens a lot, where people are staring enough where I'll kind of look and smile," Zafar says, after trying to engage a passerby at one of his "Talk to a Muslim" outreach events on a recent chilly January evening. "And they'll say, 'Hi,' and they don't sit down."
Zafar is the national spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the oldest Muslim organization in America. He's also written for national media outlets, appeared on major news shows such as "The O'Reilly Factor" and given talks around the U.S.
Though he only started his weekly outreach at Washington Square in December 2016, he has made a career of explaining a religion that is heavily practiced in other regions of the world but remains relatively unfamiliar to much of the U.S. His 2014 book, "Demystifying Islam: Tackling Tough Questions," unpacks a range of questions Westerners have about Islam.
On that same chilly January night, a man walks by and doubles back, his head crouched slightly to read a table sign bearing the same invitation as Zafar's shirt. Zafar says hello and offers the man cake and some coffee.
The man points to the cup in his hand and then his belly, saying he should lay off the sweets. But he continues to hover near Zafar's table, and eventually he launches into a story about his numerous travels to Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim nation.
Zafar tells the man about a 2014 Pew Research survey, which found that a little more than 60 percent of Americans say they don't know a Muslim person. The man is skeptical; he thinks that number is overblown.
Zafar raises his eyebrows, clearly intrigued.
"I agree with that," he replies after a beat. "They don't know a person's Muslim. And it could be because they never asked.
"Maybe they look like you instead of me," he adds, pointing from the man, who appears Caucasian, and then to himself.
Zafar moved to the Portland area from California 30 years ago, and his family hails from Pakistan. He currently lives in Tigard and attends the Southwest Portland Rizwan Mosque.
"Online, when people say, 'Go back where you came from,' this is it," he says, stretching out his arms with a shrug.
Zafar used to do outreach like this digitally. He had a daily channel called "Ask a Muslim" on Periscope, a live video-streaming social media channel, and says anywhere from 200 to 2,500 people would tune in to ask questions.
"When they're going through the list of active broadcasts and they see something called 'Talk to a Muslim,' I think they were more prone to say, 'Yeah I want to see what these guys are all about,'" Zafar says. "As opposed to here, where they actually have to sit down and they're more vulnerable."
Zafar remains relaxed and measured throughout the evening, even while speaking honestly about more sensitive topics relating to xenophobia — an unassuming openness that would disarm even the wariest of inquirers.
"I think generally the ignorance or unawareness of Islam is due to the fact that people just take what they hear at face value and they assume it's true," he says.
Zafar tips his hat to people who come to his mosque to learn more, despite expressing fear about Islam — a religion they've mostly heard about in news reports associated with extremism and acts of terror. One man Zafar talked with actually admitted his hatred of Islam.
"But he went to the belly of the beast. If he really believed everything that he was fearful of, of what we're capable of doing to him, and still came alone?" Zafar says. "That impressed me the most."
During the 2016 election season, Zafar says Muslims were used as a "political football." Since then, he and his colleagues have noticed "an uptick in not only anti-Muslim violence, but also anti-Muslim rhetoric," prompting him and those at other Ahmadiyya chapters to begin these public outreach events.
Zafar says his mosque has received a lot of support from the Southwest Portland community. "The general vibe of Portland is that they've embraced us as neighbors," he says.
His mosque hosts outreach efforts like open houses, interfaith dialogues and educational seminars, but Zafar says he noticed a gap in who they were able to attract.
"It felt like it was kind of the same crowd — the open-minded, liberal people that are coming," he says. "So we wanted to find those people that aren't willing to come to the mosque."
Zafar says he's so far averaged about two visitors a night since he's started coming to the mall. He says he is still debating whether the Washington Square atrium, which he chose because of its proximity to a coffee shop and heavy foot traffic, will work as the permanent location for his outreach. And he's still learning to navigate a fine line between seeming approachable and looking like he's soliciting or being too invasive.
"But yeah, I think it's the effort," Zafar concludes. "I know that few people can go home and say they talked to a Muslim today, but a lot of people can go home and say, 'I saw this Muslim guy just putting himself out there,' and maybe it'll start a conversation at the dinner table."
So for now, visitors can find Zafar at Washington Square, just outside the Dick's Sporting Goods store, from 2-3:30 p.m. Saturdays. He'll provide the cake if you provide the questions.