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‘Stranger at the Gate’ EP Malala Yousafzai on Entertainment’s “Power to Reveal Our Shared Humanity” (Guest Essay)



People often ask why I, an activist for education and women’s rights, want to produce films and TV shows. It’s because I believe in the power of entertainment to connect people — whether that’s across the living room or across the world.

I’ve seen it in my own life. Growing up in Pakistan, I was aware of high tensions between our government and India’s leaders. But that didn’t stop us from falling in love with Bollywood films and obsessing over actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. When we moved to the UK, my mother didn’t speak English. But she found she could share a laugh with her British neighbors over Mr. Bean’s physical comedy. At Oxford, I spent too many hours watching The Big Bang Theory or Rick and Morty with my friends.

Stories have the power to reveal our shared humanity and connect people across cultures, religions and countries. They can also teach us about ourselves, something I experienced the first time I saw Stranger at the Gatea short documentary nominated for an Academy Award this year.

The film tells the story of a man named Richard “Mac” McKinney who decides to bomb a local mosque in Muncie, Indiana. After retiring from a 25-year career in the US Marine Corps, he was suffering from PTSD and left without a purpose for his life. During combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mac’s commanding officers encouraged him to dehumanize his targets. So when his young daughter tells him about a woman in a hijab picking up her son from school, he feels driven to protect his family from “the enemy” — their Muslim neighbors.

In the film, Mac recounts building an IED and going to the small, red-brick mosque on a reconnaissance mission. There he meets Saber and Bibi Bahrami, an Afghan couple who came to Muncie as refugees in 1986, built a thriving medical practice and co-founded the mosque. Saber welcomes Mac and invites him to join the congregation for fellowship. Bibi sits next to him and asks Mac about his life and his family.

Over the next few weeks, Mac continues to visit the mosque, getting to know the men, women and children who worship there. Sensing his need for purpose, Bibi asks him to lead meetings, participate in prayers and even stand by the door as a security guard. Then, after the FBI searches his home, the congregation learns the truth: Mac was planning to murder them.

Instead of recoiling in fear and disgust, instead of casting him out, Bibi invites Mac to the Bahrami home for dinner, a traditional Afghan feast of chicken, homemade bread, rice, eggplant and more. As they share a meal, she has only one question: “What were you thinking, Brother Richard?”

Your initial reaction might be like mine: Non-Muslim people need to get past their fear of our communities and educate themselves about Islam. But this documentary is saying so much more — it is calling each of us to consider our shared humanity.

Everywhere we look today, we see people entrenching themselves so deeply in their beliefs that they can justify hatred of others. This hostility is not limited to one race, religion or creed, to one country or conflict, to one political party or social movement, to one gender or generation.

As Bibi wrote recently The Washington Post“We live in a time in which people have stopped talking to those who don’t share their views … if we continue down this road, we will never understand one another, never find our shared humanity, never have peace.”

I have experienced the damage unchecked division can cause. At 15 years old, I was shot in the head for speaking against the Pakistani Taliban’s ban on girls’ education. The assailant wasn’t a white soldier like Mac. He was a young man, not much older than me, a Muslim from my own community. He, like so many others, had been led to believe that his narrow view of the world was the right one. That his Islam was better than mine. That the role of women and girls he accepted was the one we should all be forced to practice.

When people ask me what I would say to the man who shot me, I tell them I would forgive him. I know how destructive anger, revenge and hatred can be. I will always choose love.

It may sound simplistic or trite to say, “Show kindness to those who are different from you. Forgive people who hurt you.” But people like Bibi spent years cultivating compassion in their own hearts. Over time, they learn to be receptive, not reactive. They practice acceptance, not alienation.

They do this because they know it works. In the film, Mac says Bibi and others at the mosque showed him “true humanity” and changed his life. He found a community and even served as president of the mosque for two years. He found a purpose, too — today he travels the country telling his story and helping others move from hate to understanding.

At different points in their lives, both Bibi and Mac needed help. Without the Muncie community that welcomed Afghan refugees in the 1980s, the Bahrami family might not have survived. Without the Bahrami family, Mac might have killed dozens of innocent people. Without Mac, someone struggling with hatred and rage today might never hear that it’s possible to be forgiven and live a life of love.

If you’re reading this, I hope that you’ll watch Stranger at the Gate and begin to understand Mac and Bibi’s life-saving message: To believe that people can change — and to be willing to change ourselves — is our best hope for a better world.

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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