Mansoor Shams is comfortable with a variety of labels.
He’s a veteran, who served in the U.S. Marines from 2000 to 2004. He’s a small-business owner. He’s a Muslim youth leader. And now he’s an ambassador — self-appointed.
Shams is traveling around the country with a sign that says, “I’m A Muslim U.S. Marine Ask Anything.”
He says the most common questions are related to the Islamic stance on Sharia law, women’s rights, ISIS and homosexuality. While the questions aren’t always informed, Shams tells NPR’s Ari Shapiro that he still believes these conversations have led to something positive.
“There’s a lot of assumptions that are made, unfortunately, when people see a Muslim,” he says. “But what I found is that the conversation, the dialogue, has for the most part led to something very fruitful.”
On explaining Sharia law
I think the closest one that I got as a question was, she made a comment something like, “As long as you don’t bring Sharia law here.” I said, “Well, let’s talk about that. Great question. I want that, you know. So do you know what Sharia law is?” So I told her, it’s literally a path to life-giving water. It’s like the Ten Commandments for Muslims. It’s nothing to be enforced upon anyone. It’s a moral code that I follow for myself as an individual.
On the impact of these one-on-one conversations
To me, even one person makes a big difference. Because now when that person goes out to his circle of friends, and if there is some anti-Islamic, Islamophobia sort of environment, I know that he will speak up in that moment and say, “You know what? No. Let’s not paint everybody with a broad brush.” So I don’t feel my efforts are wasted in any way. I think if I get to make a difference or change the thought process of one individual, I feel very satisfied.
On how Donald Trump’s election has changed perceptions
I think that the Donald Trump presidency has definitely created a lot of stigmas. Regardless, I think of what one says, we are not going on the bandwagon of saying, “Not my president.” In fact, our faith, my Islamic faith, teaches me that loyalty to your country of residence is a part of your faith. …
For example, I am owner of a store in the Baltimore area, and I’ve had a guy tell me … he walked in, didn’t even really know me, just says, “Hey, you Muslim right? I don’t have a problem with that, you know, but Trump better make America great again.” And until I told him that I had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, which he was totally taken aback by and shocked to the point that he kept staring at me and said, “I’m gonna go tell everybody I just met a Muslim Marine today.”
I realize that there is these things that are deeply ingrained within people, and the only difference now in the Trump era is that they have been empowered to say, “I can say it without really having any trouble because our president, unfortunately, says certain things that are, I found, very inappropriate sometimes.”
On why he continues to answer questions
It is exhausting, but I feel like it’s almost become my mission. Little did I know that when I joined the Marine Corps we would come into a time, in an era, where people would be questioning my loyalty to my country. And now, you know, the dots are being connected. I realize that my mission when I joined the Marine Corps was far greater, and today I’m getting to exercise that.