How would you respond if someone tried to kill you because of who you are? I know what my own responses would be: anger, fear, rage. For Rais Bhuiyan, the answer was different: forgiveness.
When I first heard Rais’ story, I could hardly believe it. A Muslim victim of a post-9/11 hate crime was fighting to save the life of his attacker. And one of the reasons that Bhuiyan was targeted – his faith tradition – is also the motivation for trying to save his attacker’s life.
Ten days after the September 11 attacks in 2001, Bhuiyan, an immigrant from Bangladesh, was working at a gas station in Dallas when a man walked in with a gun. Thinking the store was being robbed, Bhuiyan opened the cash register. Instead, the man asked him where he was from. “Excuse me?” Bhuiyan responded. Mark Stroman, a white supremacist who was targeting men who appeared to him to be Middle Eastern, then shot Bhuiyan in the face.
Stroman is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas on 20 July for the murder of Vasudev Patel, an Indian immigrant killed on 4 October 2001; evidence was also presented at trial that Stroman shot and killed Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani immigrant. And Rais Bhuiyan is fighting to save Stroman’s life.
I had the chance to speak with Bhuiyan briefly after learning about his campaign through Amnesty International.
Talking about his current campaign to convince the parole board to overturn the death penalty in Stroman’s case, it was clear that his faith was the primary motivating factor. In 2009, Bhuiyan completed the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he saw an amazingly diverse group come together to pray and worship. He recalled growing up as a young man in Bangladesh in a religious family, where his family prayed five times a day and his grandfather would visit every Thursday to read the Qur’an and tell his family stories from Muslim tradition, especially about the Prophet Muhammad.
One of the stories that impacted Bhuiyan the most was that of Muhammad’s visit to Ta’if, a valley near Mecca, to spread the message of Islam. The people of Ta’if reacted cruelly, forcing him to leave. In the version of the story that Bhuiyan learned growing up, the angel Gabriel appeared with the angel of the mountains, who said to Muhammad, “If you like, I shall cause mountains surrounding Al-Ta’if, to fall on them, and crush them into pieces.” But Muhammad declined, saying that the children of those who had been responsible for casting him out might someday embrace the message he had come to spread.
The message of forgiveness and redemption at the heart of this story rings powerfully true today in the lives of Mark Stroman and Rais Bhuiyan. When Stroman learned about Bhuiyan’s work for his case, he broke down in tears. If Stroman is not executed, Bhuiyan says, “I believe he will be able to reach out to others. If he [can] touch one life, that would be a success. If he is gone, we lose the opportunity to educate others.”
This faith in the future, and in the belief that we can positively impact the lives of others by sharing our stories, is a powerful anecdote to the fear that has gripped our country in the years since 9/11 – fear that has sometimes sparked violence. What is at the root of Stroman’s crime, Bhuiyan believes, is hate. And he believes that the antidote to this hatred is education and compassion, not further violence. Despite what has happened to him, Bhuiyan believes that the United States is “still a beautiful country.”
After hearing Bhuiyan’s story, I realised I had gained a deeper understanding of forgiveness and compassion, some of the highest principles of my own faith tradition as well as his. His story should compel us to look at our country and its future.
Will we choose fear? Or will we choose to reach out to those who are different from us, to hear their stories, to begin to dismantle our fears and choose instead to have faith in our future?
* Laurna Strikwerda is a programme coordinator with the Muslim-Western dialogue programme at the international conflict transformation organisation Search for Common Ground. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)