A gray Honda pulls up on the corner at Fourth and Chestnut and stops at the traffic light. A few people walk up to the left side of the car, where the driver’s window is already rolled down. They ask if he wants a free bottle of water. The driver says no, thanks, he already has his own. And the group standing on the corner moves on to offer water to someone else.
Many in the group are students or recent graduates, and on this 90 degree-day, they’re working with Muslim Americans for Compassion to spread goodwill and counteract Islamophobia.
As Muslims in Louisville and around the globe are celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, some young Muslims in the city are taking this time to educate their fellow citizens about Islam.
“What this gesture does, it’s to promote friendliness, to be honest,” says Zeeshan Bhatti, 22. Bhatti works for Merrill Lynch, and is one of the people handing out free bottles of water.
“People who are working, they’re still up all night praying and then they’re fasting during the day. I’m sure you’ve heard of the term ‘hangry’ — that’s a real thing,” says Zohaib Qureshi, also 22, and a student at the University of Louisville.
Despite the possibility of an anger-hunger combination, it’s all smiles on this corner.
“Zohaib came up with a brilliant idea to help promote the idea of solidarity and all this Islamophobia in a really casual way,” says Bhatti. “It’s just hey let’s be nice during Ramadan — which is when we fast — let’s hand out water.”
Globally, the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world make up nearly a quarter of the world’s population, according to the Pew Research Center. Christianity is still the world’s largest religion, but Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion, says the Pew Research Center.
In the Unites States, 49 percent of Americans believe that at least “some” Muslims living in the country are anti-American. That’s larger than the share of people who say “just a few” or “none” are anti-American, according to Pew. More than three million Muslims call the U.S. home.
“I’m not saying that everybody’s out to get Muslims and stuff like that, but you do have this Islamophobia and you do have people who are unaware of the religion and what it actually says,” Qureshi says.
So while handing out water, the volunteers are hoping to change the way some view Muslims in the community. Bhatti says in today’s divisive political climate, there are lots of misconceptions about his religion.
“Honestly, as a Muslim, I don’t blame them,” he says. “They have this filtered media, bias media, of what they’re observing and seeing of only explosions in Afghanistan, explosions in Syria, explosions in Iraq, explosions in Yemen. How can they not be afraid? You know what I mean? So what this is, is a friendly reminder like, ‘hey guys we’re not like that.’”
According to Pew, 42 percent of Americans say they are very concerned about Islamic extremism. And while it’s difficult to bear the burden of being stereotyped while having to explain why those stereotypes are not accurate, Bhatti sees it as an opening.
“Yes, it’s frustrating,” he says. “Yes, it’s annoying that people have these opinions — they’re not taking the time to educate themselves. Well, the way I look at it is it’s a great opportunity to tell them the right information.”
He says that can only happen after an initial interaction. And he’s willing to take the first step
“One action will set in motion many, many other actions,” he says. “This is life — it’s cyclical. Islam is a religion of altruism and you can do it in a simple way as handing out water.”