Trio hopes to dispel misconceptions with ‘Meet a Muslim’

They want to start an open dialogue with people who may not know any Muslims

Harris Zafar is hoping to have an open dialogue with people who may have questions about Muslims. (KOIN)
Harris Zafar is hoping to have an open dialogue with people who may have questions about Muslims. (KOIN)


PORTLAND, Ore. (Pamplin Media) — Six months after his talk at Pacific University, Harris Zafar and friends bring ‘Ask a Muslim’ to Hillsboro plaza

As anti-Muslim comments and attacks increase across the country, so does Harris Zafar’s counterattack: friendly conversations.

Zafar, who came to the Portland area 30 years ago, is the national spokesman for the Ahmadi Muslim community and regularly appears in magazine articles and on television.

Last December, he came to Pacific University to try to dispel negative stereotypes many Americans hold about Islam.

Shortly afterward, he set up a weekly “Coffee, Cake and True Islam” table at Washington Square Mall in Tigard, inviting people to sit down, have refreshments and ask about his faith.

He started doing something similar in western Washington County June 2. From roughly 3 to 6 p.m. every Friday at the Hillsboro Civic Center Plaza, 150 E. Main Street, Zafar and two fellow Muslims – Arman Butt and Rafael Vacahoping – hang out, inviting people talk, hoping to bridge the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims by answering questions about their faith.

Arman Butt and Rafael Vacahoping are hoping to have an open dialogue with people who may have questions about Muslims. (KOIN)
Arman Butt and Rafael Vacahoping are hoping to have an open dialogue with people who may have questions about Muslims. (KOIN)

“Meet a Muslim. Ask me anything!” read their signs.

It doesn’t take long for people to start approaching the three men. Many express thanks to the group for being open. Many ask the same questions others have already asked.

“We get a steady stream of interested people,” Zafar said. Most talk for several minutes. About five or so will have lengthy discussions. About 10 will stop for a quick hello or photo. The rest are quick waves, honks from passing cars.

Over the three hours, Zafar estimates, “we regularly reach about 60 people every week.”

‘An example for my kids’

Not every interaction is friendly.

One man swore under his breath at Butt as he walked past.

“He called me an f–ing Muslim,” Butt said. “I guarantee you, in two or three months, he’ll come and talk to us. He’ll get tired of just walking by and throwing the f-bomb around. They’ll come and talk to us.”

Butt is excited for that day.

“I want to be an example for my kids,” he said. “When people like that walk by, we understand that’s just ignorance … He needs to know that we’re just like him and we have the same concerns. He might be angry because he thinks that brown people are taking his jobs, but it will take some time for people like him to understand that I’m not a threat.”

Those interactions can be extremely uncomfortable, Butt said, but worth it if it helps non-Muslims understand his beliefs.

Too often, Zafar said, people base most of their beliefs about Islam on what they see on television.

“If you look at 1,000 depictions of Muslims on TV, only about 12 are positive – the others were terrorists or other things. It makes sense people think the way they do when you think that’s what Muslims are.”

“I’m OK with people throwing the f -bomb at me,” Butt said. “But there are many at our mosque who aren’t comfortable with that.”

Moved by non-Muslim support

Butt and Zafar are members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a small branch of Islam that makes up about 1 percent of the planet’s 1.8 billion Muslims.

There are 125 Portland-area Ahmadi Muslims who meet at a mosque in southwest Portland. The only Muslim facility in western Washington County appears to be the Islamic Community Center of Hillsboro in the Helvetia area.

The Muslim trio started their Hillsboro engagement a week after a Portland man killed two MAX passengers who tried to stop him from shouting xenophobic insults at two teenagers, one of whom wore a hijab. In a news interview, one of the girls claimed the man told them, “Go back to Saudi Arabia.”

The incident “was emotional for all of us,” Butt said. “As a Muslim, we sort of expect something (bad) to happen to us, but to have non-Muslims try to defend us and pay with their lives? I wasn’t prepared for that. We have protocols for things at the mosque if there are people outside shouting things, but never like this.”

Zafar said he believes ISIS terrorists, who claim to be Muslim, have a false interpretation of Islam.

“Men are fallible and there are Muslims out there that are doing horrible things,” he said. “But we are comfortable defending Islam.”

Zafar said he doesn’t want people to worry about offending them with their questions.

“Portland is so liberal and bleeding-heart that sometimes there is hesitation to ask questions that can be seen as offending. They don’t want to judge,” Zafar said. “That, I think, has stood in the way of true conversation and dialogue.”

Harris Zafar (left) says some people will talk to him for several minutes and about five or so each week will have a lengthy discussion. (Christopher Oertell, News Times)
Harris Zafar (left) says some people will talk to him for several minutes and about five or so each week will have a lengthy discussion. (Christopher Oertell, News Times)

One pair of “elderly ladies” spoke at length about interfaith dialogue and invited the trio to one of their events.

And Oregon state Rep. Susan McLain sent them a letter of support, “which was a wonderful and pleasant surprise,” Zafar said.

Seeking true conversation

“We want to be a consistent presence for people,” said Butt, who works at Intel’s Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro. “If someone walks by and shakes their head as us, they may become brave enough to talk to us if they see us enough. We want to be accessible and we’re ready to answer anything. We can have a conversation. We’re human, and we have human problems and experiences that we can share.”

The men aren’t street preachers, Zafar stressed. They want to answer questions and dispel stereotypes.

The News Times is a KOIN 6 News media partner.

“We’re not telling anyone they are lost or going to hell,” he said. “We just want to have a conversation. Whether it’s about sports or why our beards are so long, we want to talk.”

Rafael Vaca, who converted to Islam from Catholicism, drives from Salem for the Friday events. He said he wants to reach out to other Latinos.

“For generations, all they know comes from Catholicism. They might not have a lot of exposure to Islam,” Vaca said.

Vaca specifically drew the attention of a Latino family sitting near the fountain one day while their children played in the water.

“They spoke to us for a good two hours,” Zafar said.

The grandmother and her daughter had questions about Islam and Muslims, based on media portrayals, Zafar said, but they were hesitant to approach at first. After discussing it with each other and seeing Vaca with his Spanish-language sign, they came forward.

“They decided that this was their chance to ask for themselves,” Zafar said. “This is exactly why we are doing this – to reach those people who have questions but no chance to ask.

“We want to try every avenue so that people can have some way to get answers.” It’s a tough job, educating the public one person at a time, he said, but “we’re not going to stop.”

Jill Rehkopf Smith contributed to this story.