Muslim Marine Answers Questions In Effort To Fight Islamophobia

Jan 24, 2017
Originally published on January 25, 2017 11:00 am

Mansoor Shams is comfortable with a variety of labels.

He's a veteran, who served in the U.S. Marines from 2000 to 2004. He's a small-business owner. He's a Muslim youth leader. And now he's an ambassador — self-appointed.

Shams is traveling around the country with a sign that says, "I'm A Muslim U.S. Marine Ask Anything."

He says the most common questions are related to the Islamic stance on Sharia law, women's rights, ISIS and homosexuality. While the questions aren't always informed, Shams tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that he still believes these conversations have led to something positive.

"There's a lot of assumptions that are made, unfortunately, when people see a Muslim," he says. "But what I found is that the conversation, the dialogue, has for the most part led to something very fruitful."


Interview Highlights

On explaining Sharia law

I think the closest one that I got as a question was, she made a comment something like, "As long as you don't bring Sharia law here." I said, "Well, let's talk about that. Great question. I want that, you know. So do you know what Sharia law is?" So I told her, it's literally a path to life-giving water. It's like the Ten Commandments for Muslims. It's nothing to be enforced upon anyone. It's a moral code that I follow for myself as an individual.

On the impact of these one-on-one conversations

To me, even one person makes a big difference. Because now when that person goes out to his circle of friends, and if there is some anti-Islamic, Islamophobia sort of environment, I know that he will speak up in that moment and say, "You know what? No. Let's not paint everybody with a broad brush." So I don't feel my efforts are wasted in any way. I think if I get to make a difference or change the thought process of one individual, I feel very satisfied.

On how Donald Trump's election has changed perceptions

I think that the Donald Trump presidency has definitely created a lot of stigmas. Regardless, I think of what one says, we are not going on the bandwagon of saying, "Not my president." In fact, our faith, my Islamic faith, teaches me that loyalty to your country of residence is a part of your faith. ...

For example, I am owner of a store in the Baltimore area, and I've had a guy tell me ... he walked in, didn't even really know me, just says, "Hey, you Muslim right? I don't have a problem with that, you know, but Trump better make America great again." And until I told him that I had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, which he was totally taken aback by and shocked to the point that he kept staring at me and said, "I'm gonna go tell everybody I just met a Muslim Marine today."

I realize that there is these things that are deeply ingrained within people, and the only difference now in the Trump era is that they have been empowered to say, "I can say it without really having any trouble because our president, unfortunately, says certain things that are, I found, very inappropriate sometimes."

On why he continues to answer questions

It is exhausting, but I feel like it's almost become my mission. Little did I know that when I joined the Marine Corps we would come into a time, in an era, where people would be questioning my loyalty to my country. And now, you know, the dots are being connected. I realize that my mission when I joined the Marine Corps was far greater, and today I'm getting to exercise that.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mansoor Shams is comfortable with a variety of labels. He's a veteran who served in the U.S. Marines from 2000 to 2004. He's a small business owner. He's a Muslim youth leader. And now he's an ambassador, self-appointed. Shams is traveling around the country with a sign that says, I'm a Muslim U.S. Marine, ask me anything. And he joins us now from Denver. Welcome to the program.

MANSOOR SHAMS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: What are the most common questions that you tend to get?

SHAMS: A lot of the questions are related to Sharia law, women's rights, ISIS, you know, homosexuality, Islamic stance on that.

SHAPIRO: Are these generally informed questions, or are these questions like, are you a member of ISIS or do you conform to Sharia law?

SHAMS: There's a combination. There's a lot of assumptions that are made, unfortunately, when people see a Muslim. But what I've found is that the conversation, the dialogue has most - for the most part led to something very fruitful.

SHAPIRO: You've been doing this all over the country. Today you are in Denver. What's a question that somebody in Denver has asked you?

SHAMS: I think the closest one that I got as a question was - she made a comment, something like as long as you don't bring Sharia law here. So I said, well, let's talk about that - great question. I want that, you know? So do you know what Sharia law is? So I told her, it's literally a path to life-giving water. It's like the Ten Commandments for Muslims. It's nothing to be enforced upon anyone. It's a moral code that I follow for myself as an individual.

SHAPIRO: Do you really think that having these one-to-one conversations can make a significant impact in a country of more than 300 million people?

SHAMS: Yes, I do, because to me even one person makes a big difference, because now when that person goes out to his circle of friends and if there is some anti-Islamic - Islamophobia sort of environment, I know that he will speak up at that moment and say, you know what? No. Let's not paint everybody with a broad brush. So I don't feel my efforts are wasted in any way. I think if I get to make a difference or change the thought process of one individual, I feel very satisfied.

SHAPIRO: Over the time you've been doing this, have you noticed changes as, say, Donald Trump was elected or inaugurated, particular moments that you seem to get different kinds of questions?

SHAMS: Well, I think that the Donald Trump presidency has definitely created a lot of stigmas. Regardless, I think, of what one says, we are not going on the bandwagon of saying not my president. In fact, our faith, my Islamic faith teaches me that loyalty to your country of residence is a part of your faith. So my...

SHAPIRO: But in terms of your interactions with people on the street, do you find that people are asking you different kinds of questions in the Trump era than they might have before?

SHAMS: Yes. For example, I am an owner of a store in the Baltimore area. And I've had a guy tell me - he's like, hey - you know, he walked in, didn't even really know me, just says, hey, you're Muslim, right? I don't have a problem with that, you know? But Trump going to make America great again, right? And until I told him that I had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, which he was totally taken aback by and shocked to the point that he kept staring at me and said, I'm going to go tell everybody I just met a Muslim Marine today, I realized that there is these things that are deeply ingrained within people. And the only difference now in the Trump era is that they have been empowered to say, I can say it without really having any trouble because our president, unfortunately, says certain things that are - I found very inappropriate sometimes.

SHAPIRO: To me, what you're doing sounds exhausting. How do you not just get tired of answering the same questions over and over and over again, especially when those questions may often be pretty ignorant?

SHAMS: Well, it is exhausting. But I feel like it's almost become my mission. Little did I know that when I joined the Marine Corps we would come into a time in an era where people would be questioning my loyalty to my country. And now, you know, the dots are being connected. I realize that, you know, my mission when I joined the Marine Corps was far greater. And today I'm getting to exercise that.

SHAPIRO: That's Mansoor Shams, who created the website muslimmarine.org. He's been traveling around the country, inviting people to ask him anything. He's in Denver now and on his way to Portland, Ore., next. Thanks a lot.

SHAMS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.