On Jan. 21, the day after President Trump took office, Baltimore businessman Mansoor Shams was on a conference trip in Houston when he decided to hit the streets with a sign reading, “I’m Muslim and a U.S. Marine. Ask anything.”
Given that, according to the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of U.S. adults do not personally know a Muslim, the 34-year-old—who served as a corporal in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2004—is hoping to fight Islamophobia with those eight little words.
“I try to connect with people at a human level,” says Shams, sitting in the Pikesville home he shares with his wife, Nahel, and their four children, with a red-and-yellow Little Tikes toy car parked in the background. “We are one human family. If we both got cut right now, what color would our blood be? We might have some differences in our belief systems, but actually, we’re not that different.”
As one might imagine, reactions have varied, ranging from curious looks and angry stares to sympathetic smiles and high fives. But what has also emerged are unique dialogues as strangers ask questions about topics the likes of Sharia law, the Islamic State, and women’s rights.
“It’s a trickle effect,” says Shams. “Even the person who doesn’t come up to me, I have a feeling—and I may be wrong—that when they see the sign, something hits them. And if I can make that happen, make them think, I’m okay with it.”
Having experienced the power of face-to-face connections firsthand, Shams has continued his quest in other major cities. He took to the streets in Denver and Portland. He wielded his sign in Seattle, just days before the president’s controversial travel ban barring entry for refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries. He talked to pedestrians in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and fielded questions from passersby in the bustling heart of Times Square. For his efforts, he’s become a quasi-celebrity as the “Muslim Marine,” receiving requests for interviews from major news outlets like NPR, CNN, and PBS.
A Johns Hopkins alum and local Muslim youth leader, Shams, who moved to Maryland from Pakistan at age 6, first made headlines for his activism back in 2015 when, in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, he spearheaded the #FreeIceCream campaign that brought complimentary soft-serve to local parks and city schools in order to spread good vibes throughout the community. Two years and dozens of conversations later, he plans to keep reaching out to people, and he’s optimistic about the future.
“I have dreams,” says Shams. “One of those dreams is to just make an impact. Another is to run for office one day.”