On Sunday, May 3, a cohort of Jews and Muslims, members of a group called NewGround, were praying side by side at an event called “Two Faiths One Prayer” in Los Angeles. From sunrise to well after sunset, the NewGround fellows took their prayers to five different public spots around the city.
People were setting up for the fourth prayer of the day, taking place at City Hall, when news of a shooting in Texas started to spread.
“Did you hear about Texas?” a concerned Jewish fellow asked. It wasn’t until later that the facts became clear. Pamela Geller was hosting an anti-Islamic rally, a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, TX, when two shooters, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, opened fire.
28-year-old Omar Ashraf, one of the Muslim fellows at NewGround, received texts from friends, telling him that there had been a shooting in his hometown of Garland. Far away from his friends and family in Garland, he had no choice but to continue with “Two Faiths One Prayer” and finish his two last prayers.
What was going through your head when performing those prayers? Was your heart with Garland or were you able to stay in the moment?
Omar Ashraf: It was a mixture of both…I really couldn’t focus because my mind was on Garland at that point and what had just happened. I knew my family was safe because they were at home, but wondering what the aftermath would be, and hoping for the safety of everyone who was there, that nothing too bad had happened. So that was going on in my head, but I also knew that I had the responsibility to really stay in the moment and try to make sure that this prayer goes well. I knew this was important before, but when I was finally able to send some texts back and forth between a few friends and family, I truly understood the importance of this moment and to show our freedom of speech, per se, and show that Muslims and Jews can get along for one, and kind of curb the Islamophobia. And it was crazy that this was happening concurrently, all around the same time.
Concerning “freedom of speech” which Two Faiths One Prayer was exercising, Pamela Geller was also exercising that same right. Can “freedom of speech” be abused?
Ashraf: Free speech is a constitutional right, but you can’t abuse it. You can use it for love or for hate. And I think the mayor of Garland came out saying this was done to provoke incendiary response and when you’re doing that, regardless of what side you’re on, it’s dangerous.
Was there any comfort that you were at Two Faiths One Prayer, an event promoting acceptance and unity, when you got news of the shooting?
Ashraf: Yeah definitely. I mean, that moment right there set up the importance of the event and why it was necessary. Sometimes you can get lost from seeing the bigger picture, we get so caught up in the day to day. But right when that happened, I understood there was a certain responsibility that I had to have and that all of us, as leaders in our community, have to curb feelings of prejudice in our own communities, Los Angeles and all around. It definitely was an important day and I’m glad I participated in it. It was very cleansing reading the prayer and I felt very calm in that moment.
Have you spoken to your friends and family? Have they felt any repercussions after the shooting?
Ashraf: It’s quite surprising, they have not. Not yet, at least. From people they’ve encountered, my parents said people have been pretty supportive about everything and sympathetic to the fact that Islamophobia might spread and not hateful and blaming all Muslims or anything like that. It seems like most people understand it was two private individuals acting on their own interests rather than on behalf of Islam. I did read on Facebook, I don’t know the person, but he said he was driving home and somebody starting revving his truck and threw a can of coke and some trash at him. Little things like that have started and that’s scary.
Maybe Garland needs a Two Faiths One Prayer event.
Ashraf: Yeah they probably do. Maybe something along those lines and I think they’d be open to it.