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'Meet a Muslim'

Each weekend, Harris Zafar drives into downtown Portland and allows anyone to ask him anything about Islam.
Harris Zafar.

Harris Zafar.

As Harris Zafar circles his car around the block to find a parking spot in downtown Portland, Oregon, he wonders aloud what kind of reception he will be met with today. He's wearing a bright blue T-shirt that reads "Meet a Muslim" on the front and "Ask Me Anything" on the back. Like other places in America, the political climate has emboldened Portland's white power groups. Recently, a man riding the light rail train spewed racial slurs at a black woman and a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Wielding a knife, he then killed two of the men who intervened to help. Soon after, another man attempted to run a Muslim couple off the road with his car.

Nevertheless, each weekend, 39-year-old Zafar heads to a public space in his T-shirt, hoping to cultivate a better understanding of Islam. During the presidential election, Zafar, who is the national spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community sect, felt that Islamic words such as "caliphate" and "jihad" were used to scaremonger.

Zafar pulls into a space and walks around to the trunk to retrieve his cardboard sign, which also implores people to ask him anything. He's wearing a pair of white Nike Air Force sneakers and cargo shorts. His black hair is starting to gray near the temples, and his beard is trimmed neatly along his jaw-line. He jokes that the hipsters in Portland grow "bigger and more beautiful" beards than he does.

It's 11 a.m. and Zafar has selected Salmon Street Springs, a square along the waterfront, as his spot. It's a quintessential summer scene. Kids sit in a row on a park bench slurping lime-green snow cones. A diapered toddler splashes in the fountain. Tourists are lined up for the 11:30 a.m. boarding on the Portland Spirit cruise ship, docked on the Willamette River. The temperature is expected to hit 98.

In the square, Zafar stands over a chalk drawing of a heart around two initials. The four men he's brought along with him from his mosque begin to fan out. Zafar starts to wander, holding his sign in front of his chest.

Over the next 90 minutes about a dozen people approach Zafar, many of them tourists. An elderly white man in a Safari hat shakes Zafar's hand, a young Asian man wearing a tank top fist bumps him, and an English woman tells him that, in London, schools teach the different religions so "you'd never have to do this." A Canadian woman, visiting from Toronto, approaches to say her country is "very accepting" and that she almost didn't travel to the United States because of Donald Trump, but then thought, "Well, they're not all like him." A Portland teenager wearing a beanie and ear gauges says Zafar is the first Muslim he's met, and a woman in a red sundress asks Zafar, "Do you have more than one wife?" Zafar looks taken aback. "No, one is enough," he quips.

Up until now, the conversations are cordial. No one has challenged him or questioned his religious principles.

Then, a balding white man wearing a navy T-shirt and a backpack waits patiently for Zafar to finish speaking with a Kosovan Muslim man visiting from Seattle. The man with the backpack steps in and begins a lengthy probe into what he's heard about Sharia law, asking if a woman needs four male witnesses to prove rape and if Muslims are allowed to lie under persecution in order to protect their faith.

Zafar—who has studied the New Testament, the Old Testament, and the Quran—replies that the latter idea refers to the word taqiyya but he's only heard the term used by anti-Islam groups. Often, Zafar says, people will accuse him of taqiyya when they hear him preaching Islam as a faith of peace and tolerance. The sun beats down directly overhead.

The man then says, "Give me one example where Christians have killed thousands of people." He sticks his hands in his jean pockets, waiting.

"Give you one example? Uh, the K.K.K., the Crusades...."

"The Crusades, as I understand, were a defensive response," the man says, interrupting. "Anyway, it's historical. No, give me an example today where Christians have killed thousands of people."

Zafar has heard this sentiment before—that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.

"The Lord's Resistance Army," Zafar says.

The man nods but still seems unconvinced that all religions are created equal. "The bottom line is, it comes down to whether you believe in Allah or Jesus as God," he says.

Zafar argues God should not be a dividing factor between religions because his God teaches kindness and love for one's neighbor—just as the Christian God does.

The man nods several times. "True, true," he says. "I guess when we die, we'll see who's right."

The 30-minute conversation has made Zafar late for prayer. On the car ride back to the mosque, Zafar calls the man a "Google scholar," someone who believes whatever they read on the Internet about Islam.

Rather than dissuading him though, these sorts of encounters only motivate Zafar to return. "I'm allowing them to see the human in me," he says.