Mansoor Shams is a former U.S. Marine. He's also a Muslim.
But even more important than the coexistence of these two aspects of his identity is the equal pride Shams takes in expressing them. And he's not afraid to show it. The Maryland resident is standing on street corners all over the U.S. with a sign that reads, "I'm Muslim and a U.S. Marine, ask anything."
Shams' one-man awareness campaign aims to educate his fellow Americans about Islam to debunk stereotypes of Muslim people and counteract the recent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes — through the simple power of human connection. "There's a consistent lack of knowledge and understanding of people who follow my faith." Shams told The Huffington Post.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, the majority of Americans don't even know a Muslim person. "I guess what I want people to know, a guy who looks like me ― brown skin, black beard, the typical stereotype ― is not a terrorist," he added. "He could even be a U.S. Marine!"
Shams says the current political environment is why he believes his message is "so important" now more than ever before.
At the same time, Shams doesn't believe it is the sole responsibility or duty of people who belong to marginalized groups to educate or change the minds of those inclined to discriminate against them. "The Muslim world doesn't have a responsibility to apologize. I don't expect you to apologize for anything white people do, like white supremacy," he added. "However, if I can help my country, as a citizen, as a Marine, then I think I do have that responsibility."
Shams understands the power of his veteran status to command respect and lend credibility to his project. He's speaking out for the countless other Muslim people who do not feel safe enough to do so in their homes, much less in public spaces all over the country. "People are listening to me because I'm a Marine who served. I get that I earn a level of respect and trust where they can hear what I have to say," Shams continued. "I would love if the world we lived in was one where it wouldn't matter whether I served."
Already well into his awareness expedition, Shams has showcased his sign in such notable states as Texas, Colorado, Washington, and New York. To reach his goal of all 50 U.S. states, he has set up a GoFundMe page to crowdfund his ongoing travels.
No matter how much he does or doesn't raise, Shams is determined to see this journey through to its end. "The need is greater than any dollar amount," he said. "I feel like I'm literally serving my country again ― a country that's clearly quite divided these days ― by uniting us through conversation and getting out of my comfort zone."
Whether Shams realizes it or not, he's getting everyone who encounters him out of their comfort zones as well. And that's the only place true progress can begin.
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(H/T: The Huffington Post)