Amid the country's current political climate, can open dialogue be the key to debunking misconceptions about a group of people?
One youth organization is hoping the answer is "yes." On Saturday, Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (AMYA), a nationwide group, hosted its inaugural National #MeetAMuslim Day across 50 cities and 120 locations — from New York to San Diego — to encourage people to ask Muslims questions.
According to AMYA, hundreds of male Muslim participants stood in public spaces, holding up signs that read, "I'm a Muslim, ask me anything" in order to encourage non-Muslims and Muslims alike to come together and create a diverse dialogue. (The campaign was run by AMYA's male auxiliary team. AMYA's female auxiliary actively organizes outreach programs in universities, local coffee shops, and events on the streets and during major national holidays.)
"Pew reported that 62% of Americans have never met a Muslim. So when the only source of material for your knowledge of Islam and Muslim comes from television images and headlines, that's obviously concerning," Dr. Bilal Rana, president of AMYA, told NBC News. "We will be teaching the public that terrorism, and in fact all kinds of abuses, are foreign concepts to Islam in this campaign."
AMYA states that a large majority of the questions revolve around the concept of jihad, whether Islam promotes violence, the definition of Sharia law, and how Muslims respond to President Donald Trump's recent policies.
The #MeetAMuslim campaign began in November 2016 after the organization's #MeetAMuslim video, produced by the Review of Religion, went viral. Since then, AMYA has hosted smaller sessions, but decided to introduce a large, multi-state campaign in 2017.
Organizers say they don't want to debate people; they want to win over hearts.
"We have Muslims in all professions," Rana said."Some of the young professionals have branded themselves according to their line of work with signs that say, 'Meet a Muslim teacher' or 'doctor,' 'marine,' 'plumber,' etc. to demonstrate what true integration means."
AMYA says it hopes that the campaign can serve as as guidance tool for both non-Muslims and Muslims in future conversations.
"I want the youth in my association to know we are not victims I do not believe in raising angry youth," said Rana. "At the same time, I hope we have a positive reaction because I believe that Americans are good at heart."