It has been said many times in many ways that it’s hard to hate up close. When you talk—really talk—to a human being as a human being, you find that there is a lot more in common between you two than you would otherwise suspect.
It was with that truism in mind that Muslim couple Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins set out on a homemade years-long quest to humanize the face of Islam to those who have been too long exposed to tropes and generalities about the religion.
Hijab-clad Mona, a Syrian American rapper with millions of followers and several hit videos on YouTube, is a life-long Muslim. Her husband, Sebastian, who converted to the faith after they met, is a bespectacled white American writer and educator. Unlike Mona, he doesn’t fit in the generally accepted model of “Muslim-at-first-glance.”
Consequently, as he observes, “When we go out in the world, we experience the same thing very differently because of how we look, and because of how people perceive us and because of how people behave toward us. I am a man. I’m white. You don’t think Islam when you look at me, you don’t think Muslim when you hear my name. So I get a lot of free passes.”
“What I am interested in doing is talking to humans about being human.”
Following the terrorist attacks in San Bernadino and Paris in 2015, both perpetrated by fanatics who identified as Muslim, a string of violence against Muslims commenced. The atmosphere palpably changed. The stares the couple engendered turned hostile. Mona and Sebastian found themselves staying indoors longer and longer until, for a period of three weeks, they and their little boy simply didn’t leave the house.
Mona said, “It felt like we had to do something. Replace some of that trauma with love and connection. We’re like, so how do we get people to talk to us? We bribe them with donuts!”
And so “Ask A Muslim” was born. Setting up shop outside a Cambridge, Massachusetts library with a hand-drawn “ASK A MUSLIM—FREE COFFEE AND DONUTS” sign, the two—often with dog and toddler son in tow—proceeded to make friends… and go viral while they were at it.
“We just said ‘Ask A Muslim’—not ‘Ask a Muslim about Islam,’” Mona says. “ Just ‘Ask a Muslim.’ I can’t actually educate the world about what Islam is and I’m not interested in doing that, but what I am interested in doing is talking to humans about being human.”
People would say, “Well, what should we ask you about?” and Sebastian or Mona might answer, “I dunno. Ask us about potty training our son. Ask us about the Red Sox.”
Sebastian says, “People have called us brave and courageous, and I think all of that underscores what a scary time that we’re in that if standing up and offering you a cup of coffee and a free donut and a conversation with a big neon sign that says I’m a Muslim—if that is an act of bravery, that says a lot about what’s happening right now.”
It really felt like this epic quest of learning and finding the clues and piecing them together.
Following the enormous success of Ask a Muslim, Mona and Sebastian have literally taken their act on the road. The Great Muslim American Road Trip is a filmed docuseries that follows the two on a trek of discovery, traveling this past fall along historic Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. Mona and Sebastian make many stops on their journey, taking in the sites, exploring Muslim communities and history, talking to ordinary people, restaurateurs, doctors, writers and others.
The docuseries, which will air on PBS this summer will, as Mona and Sebastian hope, open more doors and promote more understanding. “This is a deep passion of ours; it’s our faith and our practice,” Mona said. “And it really felt like this epic quest of learning and finding the clues and piecing them together.”
She adds, “I hope people laugh at us. We’re very kind of corny and we have our little inside jokes, and I hope that people feel let in on that... I hope that that’s what people take away—feeling a human connection in a time where so many of us were isolated for so long.”