A woman who inspired thousands with a photo of herself in a hijab, a wide smile on her face and two fingers raised in a peace sign in front of anti-Islam protesters said Thursday she wanted to "combat their hatred with kindness."
Shaymaa Ismaa’eel, 24, who is Muslim, said she immediately spotted the protesters when she arrived Saturday for the 44th annual Islamic Circle of North America convention in Washington, D.C.
"I really wanted to combat their hatred with kindness, honestly,” she said. “I wanted them to see my face and simply walking by wasn’t enough."
Instead, she asked a friend to take the photo, which she shared on Instagram with the caption, “Kindness is a mark of faith. Those who aren’t kind have no faith.”
As of Thursday night, it had received more than 322,000 likes.
The protesters targeted the Islamic religion, the prophet Muhammad and the Quran, said Dr. Zahid Bukhari, executive director of the ICNA Council for Social Justice. People have protested the ICNA before, he said, but this was the first time they demonstrated against the Islamic religion.
Bukhari, a member of ICNA since 1983, said Ismaa’eel’s photo was “an exemplary response.”
“I’m really proud of her, of what she did,” he said. “That’s the exact response that should be over there.”
Linda Sarsour, a Muslim activist, had also seen the picture.
"I was a speaker at the convention and witnessed a group of white men outside hurling anti-Muslim epithets at the attendees,” she said in a statement. “The younger children were so scared."
For the most part, Ismaa’eel said, people walked by the protesters without giving them attention, but some teenagers were upset and tried to approach the men.
Bukhari attributed the protests to an “overall environment of Islamophobia and anti-Islamic rhetoric” citing President Donald Trump and white supremacists.
“Previously, it was just against ICNA, now it was against the religion and prophet due to that environment,” he said.
Anti-Muslim bias incidents increased 17 percent nationwide in 2017, with non-violent and non-threatening harassment the most prevalent type of abuse, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in its 2018 Civil Rights Report.
The ICNA convention included presentations, a bazaar and expo and a youth conference, among other events. This year’s theme was “Healing Humanity: Lessons from Islam,” according to an ICNA press release.