Shaymaa Ismaa'eel was attending a conference of the Islamic Circle of North America in Washington DC on Sunday when she saw a group of protesters holding signs against the Muslim faith and the Prophet Muhammad.
So she asked her friend to take a picture of her while she flashed a smile squatting in front of them."I really wanted to combat their hatred with kindness honestly," Ismaa'eel, 24, told CNN via Instagram. "I wanted them to see my face and simply walking by wasn't enough."
Ismaa'eel, who works as a therapist with children on the autism spectrum in the DC area, posted the photo on Instagram along with a quote from Prophet Muhammad reading: "Kindness is a mark of faith. Those who aren't kind have no faith."
The picture went viral on the picture-sharing platform, with more than 100,000 likes, and on Twitter, where it was liked more than 150,000 times.
"On April 21st I smiled in the face of bigotry and walked away feeling the greatest form of accomplishment," she wrote on a tweet accompanying the picture.
Ismaa'eel told CNN she noticed the protesters for the first time on Saturday, the second day of the convention, adding that most people were very upset by their presence and didn't appear to know how to react. She said that some teens tried to approach the men, but most people just walked by without giving them attention.
For her part, Ismaa'eel said she kept thinking about the protesters during the conference, which included sessions on different topics including the Quran, the life of Muhammad, lessons from the Christchurch shooting, and so on.The following day, after spotting them as she was leaving the main building, she asked her friend Jamilah to take a picture.
"My face honestly lit up when I saw them," she said. "I walked up as they continued yelling their hateful speech. I asked the police officer if I could stand at the curb in front of the men. The officer said 'no,' and in that moment, I felt like the biggest rebel."
"I smiled so hard in the picture and the man started directing his speech toward me. Silly things like 'your face should be covered,' 'And you know it's a cult when you're walking outside wearing pajamas.'"
Ismaa'eel said it wasn't the first time she had taken a photo like this. "I posted a photo back in 2017 when I was in college. It was the same message basically. Smile in the face of bigotry," she added.
But she's still surprised how much attention this picture has received. "I'm a low-key person. I'm still shook that it reached more that 200 likes at most. It's refreshing to see so many people supporting."
Her mother messaged her when the post was at 3,000 likes, urging: "Please be aware of your surroundings." "She's definitely nervous because it's clear people like that typically aren't the kindest. She's constantly reminding me to pray over myself," Ismaa'eel said.
Her friends and family have experienced many instances of harassment or discrimination, she added. "Just this summer, my mom and her camp students were discriminated against at a public pool. So it definitely happens."
Fortunately, the therapist said she had so far not received any threats following the post. "My sister in law and brother are patrolling my account for the most part. I had to take a step back cause some of the comments are interesting and I keep telling myself not to entertain anyone."