It probably wasn't the intent of Islamophobic protesters to cheer up the attendees of an Islamic conference in Washington DC, but they certainly brightened one young Muslim woman's day – and the photo evidence of her smiling in defiance at their bigotry has gone viral.
24-year-old Shaymaa Ismaa’eel, a a behavioural therapist for children with autism, posed happily – peace sign and all – in front of a group of angry anti-Muslim protesters and uploaded the photo to Instagram (@shaymaadarling). Her meme-worthy post has racked up over 125.5k likes and gained her legions of supporters and headlines around the world.
"Most people were very upset and didn't know how to embrace their presence," Ismaa’eel told BuzzFeed News, referring to the demonstrators (one of whose sign read "Islam is a religion of blood and murder"). "Some teens were getting upset, trying to approach the men."
But Ismaa’eel decided to combat their hatred with kindness, and on the third day of the event she asked her friend Jamilah to take a photo of her posing in front of them. "I wanted them to see the smile on my face, and see how happy I was to be me and walk around being a Muslim woman,” she told the Guardian. “I wanted to show them that we are going to remain kind and unapologetic, and continue to spread love in the face of bigotry.”
The demonstrators were present throughout the event, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) convention, an annual conference aimed at promoting Islam in the US, and Ismaa’eel couldn't get them out of her mind after first passing them on Saturday. "I kept thinking about them during the workshops," she told BuzzFeed News. "'What if we had a loud speaker so they can hear the beautiful things we’re learning about our beloved prophet?!' I kept thinking to myself."
Following the mosque shootings in New Zealand in March, in which 50 Muslim worshippers died, Ismaa’eel said she was more determined than ever to stand up to anti-Muslim hatred, telling the Guardian: “Today, we are getting more unapologetic – we aren’t afraid anymore. Today more than ever we are aware of our struggles and we want to stand up for ourselves.”
Ismaa’eel said her act of kindness in the face of bigotry was inspired in part by the actions of the first victim of the New Zealand attacks. As the murderer entered the mosque, he is reported to have greeted him with “Hello, brother”. She added: “His last words were a sign of kindness he was giving someone in the face of hatred. I want young Muslim children to know that we can still love our religion no matter who hates it.”