People often ask me why I, an education and women’s rights activist, make movies and TV shows. That’s because I believe in the power of entertainment to connect people — whether it’s in the living room or across the world.
I’ve seen it in my own life. Growing up in Pakistan, I was aware of the high tension between our government and Indian leaders. But that didn’t stop us from falling in love with Bollywood movies and falling in love with actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. When we moved to England, my mum didn’t speak English. But she finds she can laugh with her English neighbors at Mr Bean’s physical comedy.At Oxford, I spent too much time watching big bang theory or rick and morty with my friend.
Stories have the power to reveal our common humanity and connect people across cultures, religions and countries.They can also teach us about ourselves, which is what I experienced the first time I saw stranger at the doora short documentary nominated for this year’s Academy Awards.
The movie tells the story of a man named Richard “Mack” McKinney who decides to bomb a local mosque in Muncie, Indiana. After a 25-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, he suffered from PTSD and left with no purpose in life. During combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mack’s commanders encouraged him to dehumanize his targets. So when his young daughter told him about a hijab-wearing woman picking her son up from school, he felt compelled to protect his family from the “enemy” — their Muslim neighbor.
In the film, Mike recounts building an improvised explosive device and conducting reconnaissance missions to a small red-brick mosque. There, he met Saber and Bibi Bahrami, an Afghan couple who came to Muncie as refugees in 1986, built a thriving medical practice and co-founded a mosque. Saber welcomes Mac and invites him to join the fellowship of the congregation. Bibi sat next to him, asking Mac about his life and family.
Over the next few weeks, Mike continued to visit the mosque, meeting the men, women and children who worshiped there. Sensing he had purpose, Bibi asked him to lead meetings, participate in prayers, and even stand at the door as a security guard. Then, after the FBI raids his home, the congregation learns the truth: Mac is planning to murder them.
Rather than recoil in fear and disgust, or throw him out, Bibi invites Mac to dinner at Bahrami’s house, a traditional Afghan feast of chicken, homemade bread, rice, eggplant, and more. When they had dinner, she had only one question: “What were you thinking, Brother Richard?”
Your initial reaction may be the same as mine: Non-Muslims need to get over their fear of our community and educate themselves about Islam. But the documentary says much more than that—it calls each of us to consider our shared humanity.
Everywhere we look today, we see people hold onto their beliefs so deeply that they can justify hating others. This hostility is not limited to one race, religion or belief, one country or conflict, one political party or social movement, one gender or one generation.
As Bibi recently Washington post“We live in a time where people no longer talk to those who disagree with them… If we continue down this path, we will never understand each other, never find our common humanity , there will never be peace.”
I’ve experienced the damage an unchecked split can do. At 15, I was shot in the head for speaking out against the Taliban in Pakistan banning girls’ education. The attackers were not white soldiers like Mike. He was a young man, not much older than me, a Muslim in our community. He, like many others, was led to believe that his narrow view of the world was correct. His Islam is better than mine. The roles of women and girls that he embraces are roles that we should all be compelled to live up to.
When people ask me what I would say to the man who shot me, I tell them I will forgive him. I know how destructive anger, revenge and hatred can be. I always choose love.
Say “Be kind to those who are different from you. Forgive those who hurt you.” But people like Bibi have spent years developing compassion in their hearts. Over time, they learn to be receptive, not passive. They practice acceptance, not alienation.
They do it because they know it works. In the film, Mack says Bibi and others at the mosque showed him “true humanity” and changed his life. He found a community and even served as rector of a mosque for two years. He, too, has found a purpose — and today he travels the country telling his story and helping others move from hatred to understanding.
At various points in their lives, both Bibi and Mac need help. The Bahrami family may not have survived without the Muncie community’s acceptance of Afghan refugees in the 1980s. Without the Bahrami family, Mike could have killed dozens of innocent people. Without Mac, someone struggling with hatred and anger today may never have heard that it is possible to be forgiven and live a life of love.
If you are reading this, I hope you will stranger at the door And come to understand Mac and Bibi’s life-saving message: Believing that people can change — and are willing to change themselves — is our greatest hope for a better world.
This story first appeared in the February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. pick up the magazine, Click here to subscribe.