There were french fries and hot fudge sundaes between them.
Both brought a friend and both brought a gun.
“How do you expect to dialogue with those people if you come with guns?”
“If I were not to show up with guns, none of y’all would have never paid a damn bit of attention to me.”
So went part of the conversation between Tameem Budri and David Wright at the fateful Dairy Queen, on a hot Sunday in Texas – with fries and fudge sundaes between them.
Each brought along a friend, and each brought along a gun. Tameem is Muslim – and David has been concerned at what the growing presence of Islam could mean for America as a whole….enough so to stage multiple protests in front of a local mosque in his community (that had been accused of having members associating with a Hamas-supporting charity).
When campaigning for president, Donald Trump had suggested the need for heightened surveillance of mosques. And as journalist Robert Samuelson writes, “Standing up against that kind of threat reaffirmed their sense of what it meant to be an American.”
Like the lunch, David and his dozens of protestors brought along weapons to the protest, along with signs that said “Stop the Islamization of America.” At one of the protests, Muslim folks held signs that said, “Islam is a Religion of Peace.”
One member of the mosque, Ali Ghouri, decided on a different tack. Going up to David Wright, he said, “I have a weapon. You have a weapon. I’m not scared of you.”
We’re both scared. One thing both men had in common, was they’re both scared. Ali, for instance, describes getting jumped by four white guys in middle school, and coming away bloody. For the most part, though – he felt safe and at home in America – until the recent election. He describes how his friends started hearing more people telling them, “Go back to your country!”
As his nervousness grew, Ali did what his friends started to do – buying his first gun.
That’s partly how David initially explained the need to carry a gun: “We didn’t do it because we want to look like bada‑ses. We did it because we needed protection…I’m not going out like the people in France did” (referring to the 2015 shootings at the Charlie Hebdo magazine).
The fears of David and his friends were broader than being involved in a terrorist attack himself. As one of David’s friends Christopher Gambino put it, “For Christians, the culture of America that we’re a part of is sort of being usurped.” He continued, The core issue for me is about America and what it means…I come from a house with very strong values. And some people keep trying to change our values….I don’t want to see the nature of the culture I’m used to having be changed.”
This shared sense of fear might well become common ground, unless, of course – we insist our fear is more real than the other guy’s. As Ali put it, “David is scared, but I feel our fears are more rational.”
So what to do?
Let’s do lunch. On the afternoon of the first protest, Ali did more than show David his own gun. He invited David to talk sometime.
At the time, David thought Ali was kidding, and was ready to dismiss the offer. But the conversation was overheard by a local reporter who asked to come along if the lunch ever happened.
David ultimately agreed in hopes it might draw some positive attention to his cause, while adding, “Maybe they’ll answer my questions about Muslims.”
Their first meet-up at a branch of the Halal Guys (Middle Eastern fast food), lasted 2 hours – centered largely on Ghouri hearing Wright’s fears that the mosque was still funding terrorists. After hearing Ghouri’s explanations and defense, Wright said, I’m not sure I believed him…But I did get a free lunch out of it. I had a halal sandwich. That was good s—.”
One meet-up, of course, doesn’t magically change everything – and David found even more success in organizing protests after their first lunch together, with almost 150 people showing up.
David himself insisted he didn’t learn anything about Islam from that first conversation, while granting it had “changed my perspective a little bit. I have a little more trust for the average Muslim person.”
Ali added, “I think I saw a little bit in him that he did not want to hate Muslims,” Ghouri said. “Maybe over time, he’d change his beliefs.”
Not incidentally, then, David suggested a place for their second lunch together: “Meet me at the Dairy Queen.”
… these men found surprising resonance in “Opposition to a culture that rejects modesty, shame, obedience, respect of our elders, altruism…and the decay of public morals.”
Talking about the hard stuff. Like any who have experienced real dialogue across hard differences know, it’s not all kittens and rainbows! One thing that makes it powerful is the opportunity to get real with each other – asking real questions, and hearing real thoughts.
And that’s exactly with David and Ali (and their friends Tameem and Christopher) ended up doing. For instance, Ali explained to David and Christopher shared his story about getting beat up and how threats had grown on his friends since the election, when Ali had to show a gun to a driver who looked like he was going to ram him.
While you might expect such a story to induce some compassion, David and Christopher were honest about being unconvinced. David admitted that for years he had seen Islamophobia as exaggerated, and even “made up.” Christopher added, “It’s Christians here who feel embattled.”
One of the things that feels threatening to people like David and Christopher, are the many accusations that are used to portray them as hateful and bigoted. So, during the course of their conversation, David ended up saying all of the following: “I ain’t no Alex Jones!…I am not a conspiracy theorist!” and especially, “I am not a white supremacist…I hate those guys.”
David, for his part, shared his concern that people who didn’t want to be Muslim anymore couldn’t leave the faith without getting hurt: “It’s like the mafia.”
“That’s B.S.,” Tameem pushed back – explaining there’s a lot more freedom to live the way you want than outsiders realize.
So then, why can’t Muslims assimilate with broader America culture, Christopher asked?
Ali responded, “You shouldn’t have to assimilate. We can integrate. We should learn the language. We should learn the institutions and laws and structures, social and economic. . . . At the same time, we should not be expected to give up our culture.”
Ali pressed the point, “Why do you have to feel superior? Are we forcing [you] to speak another language or do another thing? No. You do whatever you want to do. We are living in a growing and thriving community, and we are going to do what we want to do.”
Christopher admitted, “It can make some people uncomfortable is all I’m saying.”
In response, Ali said, “The best way to handle that is to get to know each other. I can understand it’s uncomfortable, but you have to be courageous. Otherwise, this cycle of hate is going to continue and the fear we have of each other will never go away.”
“But it makes us uncomfortable,” Christopher said again.
“Yeah,” Ali said. “That’s multiculturalism.”
It’s worth noting that in these lunch conversations, the reporter and photographer act as a kind of moderator – playing a facilitator role, of sorts, that’s been proven to help bring out the “better angels” of our nature. That seemed to be the case here.
After three hours, the fries had grown cold – and the men stood up because they were getting tired of sitting.
They decided to finish the conversation in the parking lot, where they could have a cigarette.
There under the hot sun, the men relaxed and started comparing guns and sharing stories of going boar hunting. Their common ground went beyond simply loving Texas, though. In Christopher’s words, the men realized that on some level, they all “espouse[d] the importance of following God’s will, as opposed to our own. This ‘submission’ is at odds with modern…culture, which we agreed was tragically decadent.”
Interestingly enough, then, these men found surprising resonance in “Opposition to a culture that rejects modesty, shame, obedience, respect of our elders, altruism…and the decay of public morals.” Based on this realization, as Christopher said, it “found us on the same page again.”
As Christopher told Ali and Tameem, “You have a lot of philosophical integrity…I’ve learned a lot.”
Tameem reciprocated, telling David and Christopher, “I have respect for you…It seems you don’t just want to be a propagandist.”
As Christopher put it, “we had grown to be more adversaries then enemies, and by the end of the day, I had made two new friends.”
As the lunch ended, David announced he was done protesting in front of Ali’s mosque.
“I cannot believe what I am hearing,” Ali said.
But it was true. Sometimes, a little bit more understanding really is enough.
As one commentator quipped, “This proves that ice cream at a DQ can solve a lot of problems.”
Thanks to Robert Samuels at the Washington Post for the excellent reporting that captured this moment for others to appreciate (go to his original story here, “Over onion rings, a tense meeting about Islam and America” to hear audio excerpts from the conversation as well).