Stranger at the Gate: The Story of a Muslim Convert Gets Oscar Nomination
Retired US Marine Richard Mac McKinney hated Muslims so much that he planned to bomb an Islamic Center in the state of Indiana. His transformation is the subject of a documentary short film called "Stranger at the Gate." The film has already won a special jury prize at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It tells the story of how McKinney abandoned his plot and ended up converting to Islam.
|L to R: Mac McKinney, Jomo Willians, Dr. Mohammad Bahrami, Mrs. Bibi Bahrami|
When Mac, a veteran of the US "global war on terror", returned to Indiana in 2006, he was outraged by the presence of the local Muslim community who he saw as enemies. During the periods he described to Joshua Seftel, the director of "Stranger at the Gate", as “between being drunk and sober,” he brainstormed how he could attack Muslims—an action he thought of as continuing to protect his family and serve his country.
He hatched a plot to bomb the Islamic Center of Muncie, Indiana on a Friday to "kill and injure at least 200 Muslims". But before carrying out his plot, he went to the mosque to check out the place where he met the Bahrami family, co-founders of the center and themselves Afghan refugees who arrived in the United States in the 1980s; and Jomo Williams, a Black local convert. The warm welcome he received at the mosque surprised him. Thus began his transformation that the film is about.
There are probably many more such stories that have remained obscure. One such story is about Balbir Singh in India. Balbir participated in the demolition of the ancient Babri masjid in Ayodhya, India. Then he went through a transformation and embraced Islam. His new name is Mohammad Amir. He now builds mosques across India to wash away his guilt.
"Stranger at the Gate" is directed and produced by Joshua Seftel. It is one of five films nominated in the "Best Documentary Short Film" category for an Oscar. The other four are: “The Elephant Whisperers,” “Haulout,” “How Do You Measure a Year?” and “The Martha Mitchell Effect." You can watch it on YouTube.
Bibi Bahrami is a co-founder of the Islamic Center of Muncie, Ind., and the subject of the new Oscar-nominated documentary “Stranger at the Gate,” executive produced by Malala Yousafzai.
Several years ago, an unfamiliar man showed up at my little mosque, a squat brick building on the side of a four-lane highway in Muncie, Ind. He had a large U.S. Marine Corps logo and a sketch of a small skull with a lightning bolt tattooed on his right arm. His face was flush, he barely made eye contact, and his fists were clenched. He seemed angry.
Naturally, we saw potential danger. In these days of intense cultural division, hatred against Muslims is palpable, and our places of worship have been the targets of terrible crimes. But we also sensed vulnerability in this stranger. My husband, an Afghan refugee and a gentle physician, welcomed the man with a heartfelt hug. Later, I sat alone with him in our mosque library — to share a smile and ask his name, to offer comfort and show him respect.
Why, you might ask, would I put myself in this position? When I was a young girl growing up in Afghanistan, I met troubled men like this at the homeless shelter run by my father. And when I fled the war in Afghanistan to a refugee camp in Pakistan as a teenager, I cared for many needy people. I have always believed in the idea that we must welcome the stranger, the person in need. And that if we search for common ground with all those we meet, we will discover our shared humanity, and we will all be better for it.
As the stranger and I sat on a green vinyl couch, surrounded by leather-bound books, he finally started to make eye contact. I learned that his name was Richard “Mac” McKinney, that he had served 25 years in the military, and that he had a wife and daughter. Over the next few weeks, Mac began making regular visits to the mosque, joining us for meals and sharing stories about his family and his time in the military.
I continually looked for ways to help him feel valued by entrusting him with responsibilities around the mosque: leading meetings, participating in prayers, even standing by the door as our resident security guard. I could tell this gave him a sense of purpose. Not long after that, he joined our community of about 200 by becoming a member of the mosque.
It wasn’t until months later that I heard unsettling rumors. Some congregants claimed they’d heard that when Mac first came to the mosque, he was on a reconnaissance mission. That he’d built a bomb to blow up the mosque and murder us.
I knew immediately what I needed to do. I invited Mac to my house for a meal of traditional Afghan food: homemade bread, chicken, kebabs, rice, eggplant, a green yogurt dip seasoned with cilantro and lime. He devoured the food. When he was done, I looked him in the eye.
“Is it true, Richard?” I asked. “Were you planning to kill us?”
He looked down. He was ashamed but answered honestly. He confessed that when he had first arrived at the mosque, he had planned to murder us by blowing up the building with an IED he had built himself.
“What were you thinking, Brother Richard?”
He explained that in the military, he had been at war with Muslims for years, and that he had developed a deep hatred in his heart. But he went on to say that the way we had treated him, with compassion and kindness, had changed his mind. He said we had given him a place to belong. We had shown him what true humanity is about.