Islamophobic messages directed toward the Quba Islamic Institute in Houston tarnished the overwhelming support and solidarity the mosque received after an arson attack on Feb. 12.
But instead of shying away from the social media comments, or responding with more hate, Ahsan Zahid, the assistant imam of Quba, decided to “turn around something negative into a positive.”
Zahid told Al Jazeera that before the arson at the two-year old mosque, Quba had received only one hateful comment, which came recently as anti-Muslim sentiments across the U.S. have been rising.
A study published last week by Lifeway Research found that only 43 percent of Americans believe Islam can create a peaceful society.
Fears in the Muslim community became a horrifying reality on Feb. 10 when three students — Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and his sister Razan Abu-Salha— were shot dead in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Since that shooting, numerous Islamophobic acts have been reported throughout the country, and many count the Quba fire among them.
But Darryl Ferguson, the homeless man who was charged on Feb. 16 for setting the mosque ablaze, said "it was an accident."
In a video post published on Wednesday, Zahid said Quba accepts Ferguson's statement and had "hoped from the beginning that it was not a hate crime."
“We feel that this world has enough hate, and we have to have love and harmony and solidarity,” Zahid said.
And with that attitude, he responded to Islamophobia on social media.
After the Houston fire, Joshua Gray, a truck driver from Catersville, Georgia, took to Facebook and accused Muslims in the United States of not taking a stand against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
He called Muslims "scum," in one comment, and in another post he wrote that he hoped a mosque "burns for every American killed by these terrorists."
Zahid responded to Gray by inviting him to Quba. Gray, already driving through Houston area, accepted. Then he spent five hours at the mosque speaking with its members and seeing them in prayer.
"It just changed my opinion on a lot of the things I’ve seen and heard by just going in and actually talking to him face to face," Gray, who said he never met Muslims prior to visiting Quba, told Al Jazeera.
He added that Zahid and other members of the mosque treated him with "friendliness" and were "welcoming" and "well mannered."
"Everything that a lot of us are told as Christians, they do as far as treating everybody the same. Even after my comments that I made, they still treated me good," Gray said. "It’s just not what I was expecting."
Gray later issued a public apology on Quba’s Facebook page, and added: “Anger gets the better of us sometimes by things happening around the world, and in our own country, so we tend to lash out the only way we are able, which are the ones like you, who dont like it anymore than we do. Thanks for inviting me.”
Gray said he hopes to visit Quba again to continue the conversation if he returns to Houston.
Zahid blamed news organizations for pressuring the entire Muslim community to be held accountable for any crime committed by a single Muslim.
"In the media, whenever a Muslim in the community commits a crime, it is burdened upon the entire ummah, the entire community, to condemn that person," Zahid said, adding that this pressure is not applied to other races or religions after an event like a mass shooting.
Zahid partly blames the anti-Muslim climate for the number of people misinformed about Islam. "We have the power to educate ourselves. ... I do blame them on not trying to take the initiative to getting to know people that they so easily hate."
Nonetheless, Zahid kept reaching out.
When Facebook user Barour Bob Hammer said, “I don't know why, but I suddenly feel like throwing severed pig-heads at every Muslim on my path," Zahid replied: “We are sorry you feel that way. Perhaps we can one day settle our differences and move forward towards a more perfect Union and World. Thank you, sir.”
Oso Osorio, another Facebook user, also focused on the Muslim prohibition on eating pork, writing, “I can donate some bacon sandwiches and a bible if you all want!”
Zahid accepted the offer: “We would gladly take you donation. Knowledge is something we can never have enough of. And we may feed the homeless in our area with the sandwiches. You are such a thoughtful human being!”
Merri Burnthorn, who supports the Facebook pages of American Sniper, National Rifle Association and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, read, “About time the tables are turned! don't feel bad for you one bit! Where were you on 9/11?”
Zahid responded: “You don't have to feel bad. You have that right for sure.”
Quba's approach has so far worked at changing the heart of at least one person. Gray said that now, if he hears an Islamophobic remark, "I would definitely say, 'No, that’s not right. That’s not how the majority of Muslims are.'"