The Muslim Group That’s Opening Hearts By Making Free Dinner
‘You can’t defend Muslims if you don’t know what they’re like.’
October, 2015. Bloomington, Indiana. A woman is at a cafe with her husband and 9-year-old daughter. Shouts of “white power” are the only warnings she hears before she is grabbed by the neck by a drunk 19-year-old Indiana University student named Triceten Bickford. He chokes her while trying to rip off her hijab.
Events like this are becoming more common in the US. Whether it’s Nazis marching in Charlottesville or the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota, Muslims have a lot to be afraid of these days.
The woman who was attacked in Bloomington — who doesn’t want to be named—attends a local mosque called the Islamic Center of Bloomington. Anna Maidi is the Women’s Committee President of the center.
Maidi says women at the mosque told her that, after the attack, they were “praying before they left the house.” In our phone interview, Maidi goes on to describe how many women wouldn’t leave the house at night, even for something as simple as picking up a gallon of milk.
“They should be able to go get milk,” she says.
In addition to serving as an official at the mosque, Maidi is the Executive Director of the Openhearted campaign. Openhearted focuses on introducing average Americans to Islam in a fun, approachable manner. The group hosts open houses where they serve multicultural food, creates podcasts detailing the lives of Muslim-Americans and even invites non-Muslims to post-sunset meals during Ramadan.
Maidi is one of the group’s founders. She tells me the idea for the group came sometime in February 2016, a few months after the Bloomington attack. Maidi says it took some time for the ramifications of such a horrendous act to sink in.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” Maidi recalls thinking at first. “And then I moved on.”
Picking up the pieces and moving on after a tragedy is a sad reality for many Muslim Americans, especially for those who — unlike Maidi — aren’t natural-born citizens. Around 58% of America’s Muslims are immigrants, and Maidi says that most feel like guests who have a different idea “of what a person is owed.” Having been raised in a predominantly white, Christian neighborhood in Indianapolis, Maidi’s natural-born citizenship and conversion to Islam later in life gives her a unique perspective on the religion’s struggle for acceptance.
Through it all, a single thought refused to stop bouncing around Maidi’s mind: “Is Bloomington as open as we believe it is?”
This concern eventually led to a discussion about how to break down barriers between Muslim Americans and the general population.
So how do you go about convincing people that Muslims aren’t the bloodthirsty terrorists that the media and political leaders often paint them as?
You have to get to know them.
“Humanizing is a huge, main goal of what we do,” Maidi says. “You can’t defend Muslims if you don’t know what they’re like.” One problem Openhearted faces is the fact that people in white communities are most exposed to Muslims while hearing about a foreign terrorist bombing on the news.
“You can’t apply what you’re seeing in another country to your neighbor,” says Maidi.
Hate, it seems, is so much easier when you’ve already made up your mind.
Despite an investigation by the FBI to determine if this attack constituted a hate crime, Bickford eventually pled guilty to Battery with Moderate Bodily Injury. He was sentenced to a year in jail and another year of probation.
The woman who was attacked has forgiven Bickford for his crime. She’s even prayed for him to realize the errors of his ways.
Bickford’s friends told the Indiana Daily Student — a student newspaper at Indiana University — that they were shocked to learn about the attack. They said Bickford was a straight-A student, a Bernie Sanders supporter and had dated women of color.
The night of the attack, Bickford had a blood alcohol content of .195, which is more than twice the legal limit to drive.
Maidi and the rest of the Openhearted campaign have pushed for a dialogue about the problems Muslim Americans face. Aubrey Seader, a project manager at Openhearted, created Muslims of Bloomington, a photo-storytelling project (similar to Humans of New York) that illuminates aspects of Muslim life in southern Indiana.
The Hijabi Diaries, another project that Seader created, focuses on Muslim women who choose to wear hijabs. It’s a first-hand explanation of both the joys Islam brings to their lives as well as the burden of wearing a symbol that instantly identifies them as different.
Sadly, different is so often seen as “scary.”
But there’s a better way to view different, says Maidi. As our talk was wrapping up, she pointed me to Verse 49:13 from the Quran:
“O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.”
Maidi tells me this is a reason for the world’s diversity. To her, the beauty of God’s design is directly related to how different we all are. We may have come from our own “nations and tribes,” but our goal should be to know one another. Not change each other to fit a specific cultural norm, but to simply sit down and have a conversation.
I’ve never been religious myself, but that’s something I can believe in.