At first I thought it was a joke.
Like the satirical Funny or Die video "Muslim-Meet," which offers "a surefire way to cure your Islamophobia." That video spoofs ignorant Americans being introduced to a random Muslim American and discovering their commonalities, like living in an apartment, loving soup and watching Netflix, "just like me."
The conceit of the two-minute video is humanizing a regular human to those who would believe that Muslims have retractable horns growing from their heads. It makes us laugh because the notion is so obvious, it's silly.
Well, perhaps not so obvious.
Scott McNorton, 35, an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, was so fed up with the anti-Muslim bigotry he heard that he felt motivated to do something to counter it. He didn't have any Muslim friends, nor did he know much about Islam. He grew up in Waynesboro, Virginia, about three hours south of D.C., where he said a lot of people were just like him: white and middle class.
Shortly before Christmas, he was sitting in the university's student center and saw a Muslim student wearing hijab walking across the room. He approached her and asked if she would mind taking a selfie with him.
Understandably, she was a little puzzled by the request from a stranger. She's a student, not a campus attraction, after all. He explained to her that he wanted to post pictures of himself with Muslims to help educate others who have never met a Muslim. This was his attempt to promote tolerance through exposure.
"Oh yes, that would be awesome," she replied, gave him a high five and thanked him for the selfie.
Thus began #SelfiesWithMuslims. At first he would post the images on his own Facebook page, beginning each status with "One day a Christian man meets ..." and briefly describe the encounter and Muslim he met. He has since created a separate page, which has garnered thousands of likes from around the world.
In an interview with a local paper, he said he wants people to see that Muslims enjoy being outdoors, playing sports, watching Netflix, playing video games and hanging out with friends. One of the women from his selfie encounters concurred, adding that she likes to eat bagels with Nutella, too.
It would seem satirical if McNorton wasn't so genuinely earnest and if the Muslims he approached weren't so touched and thankful for his gesture. The project has led him to visit local mosques and get to know a community he knew nothing about before.
Ironically, the social media project was inspired by GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump. After McNorton heard his call for ban on Muslims entering America, a proposal denounced by the majority of Republican officials and candidates, he could not stay silent.
"I grew up in a family that was very high on morals and values and respect," he said. "It is ridiculous that someone has to stand up and say something. But it's not about being a Catholic, like me, or a Muslim. It's about being a decent human being to another person."
Imagine how bizarre #SelfiesWithaJew or #SelfiesWithaChristian or #SelfiesWithanAgnosticWhoStillLikesToCelebrateChristmas might sound.
McNorton's efforts seem less ridiculous given the backdrop. He grew up in the same county as Riverheads High School, where a teacher recently drew national attention and local fury for giving geography students a lesson that included information on Islam and Arabic calligraphy. And Bruce Hagen, the mayor of Superior, Wisconsin, where McNorton now lives, has come under fire for a recent Facebook comment. Under a picture of Michelle Obama, Hagen wrote: "Unbelievable! She and her Muslim partner have destroyed the fabric of democracy that was so very hard fought for."
Obama has repeatedly said he is a Christian. Hagen has since apologized and accepted an invitation from the Muslims in his community to meet them for a meal at their mosque.
McNorton said he wants his own two children to learn the same values his mother taught him.
"I want them to see that it's OK to put yourself out there. It's OK to learn from others. It's OK to educate others."
He's been overwhelmed by the hugs, smiles and encouragement he's received from random Muslims he's met. One of them, Ahmed Maamoun, is an assistant professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He met McNorton at a recent Friday prayer service.
"Thank you for what you are doing for us," Maamoun said to him, gladly posing for a group selfie.
McNorton says that while the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, he's gotten a few negative messages. Some people are upset by his wanting to portray Muslims as normal people. One person said he hopes McNorton "gets taken out" for what he's doing.
"People want to scare me," he said. "I'm not scared."
We've gotten to the point where some Americans are so upset by the message that Muslims are normal people that they would wish death upon that messenger.
Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish reality from satire.