When Jason Leger arrived at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix on Friday night, one of about 250 people protesting the mosque, he was wearing a t-shirt that read “FUCK ISLAM.”
But as the rally was winding down, Leger, curious about the faith he was protesting, turned his shirt inside out and went inside the mosque.
Leger had a change of heart.
“It was something I’ve never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along,” Leger told the Washington Post. “They made me feel welcome, you know.”
A handful of the protesters who came to the center Friday had the same experience — one that experts say is a key example of the best way to defuse Islamophobia.
“They hadn’t been inside a mosque, they hadn’t talked to Muslims before,” Usama Shami, the president of the Phoenix mosque, told Fusion. “I think a lot of them they were deceived about what this religion is about.”
It was a tense situation, Shami said, with police officers separating the anti-Islam protesters—many of whom were armed with handguns or even assault rifles—and an even larger counter-protest organized by Christian allies, who formed a human chain around the mosque. There was no violence and no arrests, a Phoenix police department spokesperson told Fusion.
But after most of the hate-mongering protesters—who drew cartoons of Muhammad and called the Phoenix mosque’s 800 members terrorists—went home, Leger and a few others started talking with their Muslim neighbors. Some went inside the mosque and saw prayers.
Paul Griffin, another protester, told a group of Muslims that he wouldn’t wear the offensive t-shirt again.
“I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt,” he told one man while shaking his hand and smiling, the Post reported. “I won’t wear it again.”
“When I took a second to actually sit down and listen to them, and actually enter their mosque, and go in and watch some of their prayers, it is a beautiful thing, and they answered some of the questions that I had,” Leger told a local TV station.
Interacting with people of different faiths is critical to creating understanding and acceptance, research shows.
“Relationships are the most powerful antidote to prejudice that we have,” Nathan Lean, the research director at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, which studies Islamophobia, told Fusion. “There’s something very human about it—when we get to know people that are different from us, we tend to see in them our common humanity.”
About 6 in 10 Americans say they don’t know a Muslim person, according to two decades of surveys that the Bridge Initiative reviewed.
“The consequence of that is that when you don’t know a Muslim personally, what you do know comes from representations in the media and elsewhere,” Lean said.
The die-hard Islamophobes are loud, but they don’t represent the opinions of most people in the community. On Saturday, hundreds gathered at the Phoenix mosque for a “Love is Stronger than Hate” rally organized by an interfaith group.
The mosque already hosts student groups from around the area, and Shami said they have an open-door policy for anyone who wants to learn about Islam.
“Every mosque in the U.S. has the same policy,” Shami said. “If people just go and visit a mosque or a community center, knock on the door and talk to them, that brings a human dimension in the relationship.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.