As It Happens

He planned to blow up a mosque, but found salvation there instead

After visiting an Indiana mosque with a secret plan to bomb it, a U.S. military veteran unexpectedly finds himself welcomed with open arms.

Oscar-nominated doc Stranger at the Gate shows 'the power of kindness and compassion'

A portrait of a muscular, gray-haired man with a sleeveless shirt and tattooed arms.
When Richard (Mac) McKinney first visited a mosque in Muncie, Ind., he was planning to blow it up. But instead of shunning him, the mosque leaders welcomed him, and changed the course of his life. (Smartypants Brooklyn)

To say that Mac McKinney used to be Islamophobic would be an understatement.

Until about 16 years ago, the U.S. army veteran believed that Muslims were inherently evil, and that he had to do everything in his power to protect his partner and step-daughter from their encroachment on American society. 

"It was a hatred that had found a home inside me, and basically became so powerful that I have often described it as being another organ in my body," McKinney told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "I thought it was keeping me alive, to be honest."

Powered by that hatred, McKinney concocted a plan to build an improvised explosive device and blow up the mosque in his hometown of Muncie, Ind. 

His goal, he says, was to kill at least 200 people. 

But within eight months of first stepping foot inside the Islamic Center of Muncie, he not only abandoned his plan, but he joined the mosque, converted to Islam and found what he had always been searching for deep down — community.

That journey is now the subject of Stranger at the Gate, which is nominated for Best Documentary Short Film at this year's upcoming Academy Awards.

The mosque leader who saw something in him

When Bibi Bahrami, the mosque's co-founder, first first laid eyes on McKinney, she admits she found him "a little scary." 

He was, after all, a stranger — an imposing man with broad shoulders and arms covered in tattoos who had just showed up at the Islamic Center out of nowhere. 

"But meanwhile, I see vulnerability in him," she told Köksal. "Like he might be looking for something."

McKinney introduced himself as someone who just wanted to learn a little more about Islam. But in reality, he had more sinister motives.

"I was looking for facts," he said. "I was looking for proof that these were evil people."

A portrait of a smiling middle-aged woman in a blue headscarf.
Bibi Bahrami is the co-founder of the Islamic Center of Muncie. Her work to de-radicalize a U.S. army veteran with violent intentions is now the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary. (Smarytpants Brooklyn)

Despite whatever reservations they had about McKinney, Bahrami and the other worshippers welcomed him with open arms. Bahrami's husband embraced him. Another member gave him a Qu'ran and told him to come back when he had questions.

"I was confused," McKinney said. "This is not Islam as I know it."

Finding meaning after 9/11

As the months went on, McKinney returned to the mosque again and again. 

He started to develop close relationships with the members — especially Bahrami, who went out of her way to give him special attention and involve him in the community.

She says she saw something familiar in him — something she'd seen in the faces of the ex-military guys who were patients at her husband's family physician clinic. 

"Some of those people with difficulties and some sicknesses, which [is] very, very common," she said. "And I could see that a little bit in him."

WATCH | Trailer for Stranger at the Gate:

When someone needs help, Bahrami steps up. It's always been her way.

"Because of my experience and upbringing, I was blessed with a ... father [who] always welcomed people. There was not a stranger in the house. We had a home for the homeless," she said. 

It's a mantra she continued to live by after she fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and made a new home in the U.S. in 1986. 

But it hasn't always been easy to maintain that welcoming disposition, especially after the rise of Islamophobia in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"We choose to live in this beautiful country by choice. And we were blessed to be welcomed here," she said. "To hear those kinds of statements after 9/11, it was a difficult time for all of us."

But instead of retreating inward, Bahrami decided to put herself out there even more.

She started speaking at community events, showing people a different side of Islam. She connected with leaders from different churches and faiths. 

She remembers attending a class about peace and conflict, and watching a video about the Iraq war. Two of her fellow students admitted that their parents hated Muslims now. 

"I told both of those students, I would love to have your parents welcome to my house [because] I don't want them to live with this hate," she said. 

'What he told me at the dinner table'

Bahrami's instincts about McKinney were spot on. His time as a U.S. marine in Iraq changed him, he said.

"The things I did [in the military], you know, there was no other way to describe except that they were evil," he said. "The reason I called it evil was because I enjoyed it. And that's actually a hard thing for me to admit, because that's a sickness."

When he was medically discharged in 2006, he began to unravel. 

"I was very upset with the government, with the military, because they didn't need me anymore. And I decided that I was going to take all that out on the Muslims."

A framed photograph of a young man in a military uniform in front of an American flag.
McKinney was left traumatized and hate-filled by his time overseas in the U.S. military. (Smartypants Brooklyn)

As McKinney spent more time at the mosque, his views about Islam changed. Instead of destroying the Islamic Center, he joined it. 

As that de-radicalization unfolded, police got wind of his original plan and searched his home.

By then, McKinney had already dismantled his homemade bomb, and the authorities decided he posed no threat. But word spreads fast, and McKinney's fellow mosque members were worried.

"Some of the members told me they were not comfortable coming to the centre," Bahrami said. "Even when he converted to Islam, there was a big concern."

But instead of kicking McKinney out, she brought him in closer — inviting him to her home for dinner.

"I started a conversation and I asked him straightforward. I said, 'Is this the truth, what I'm hearing?' And that's the time that he was honest and sincere about it,'" Bahrami said.

"He told me ... how we welcomed him to our house, and how we treated him with respect and kindness had touched his heart. That's what he told me at the dinner table."

McKinney is still an active member of the mosque today. And he has dedicated his life to fighting the kind of hatred that once had such a powerful hold over him. He went to school to study social work and conflict resolution. Now he travels the country to speak about his experiences.

"I call it my anti-isms campaign," he said. "If it has an 'ism' on the end of it, it's probably bad. It's probably something that needs to change." 

'The power of kindness and compassion'

Stranger at the Gate is an extension of the long-running docu-series, The Secret Life of Muslims, from director Joshua Seftel.

Growing up Jewish, Seftel says he was no stranger to bigotry. When he was a boy, other kids would throw rocks and pennies at him and call him antisemitic slurs.

"After I became a filmmaker and then after 9/11, I saw a lot of hate toward my Muslim friends," he said. "I was like, oh, as a filmmaker, maybe there's some small way I can help by telling stories."

A portrait of a smiling man with a beard, glasses and baseball cap.
Joshua Seftel is the director of Stranger at the Gate, part of his long-running docu-series, The Secret Lives of Muslims. (Gabi Porter/Smartpants Brooklyn)

When he read about what happened in Muncie, he says he was blown away by Bahrami's bravery. 

"She found out that this person wanted to do her harm and that he had hated her. And so her reaction was: 'Well, I'm going to invite him over for dinner,'" he said. 

She extended the same warmth to Seftel and his crew while they were filming, he said. During the screenings for the doc, she would bring homemade cookies for the audience.

"Even if there's 200 people there, she will make cookies for them and pass them out. And this is not a gimmick. This is, like, who she is," he said.

"It really captures the spirit of this story and of what it's about, which is trying to connect with people, with other human beings, and the power of kindness and compassion. And it can actually save lives."

A smiling woman in a cream-coloured headscarf stands in a crowd of people holding a large tub of cookies in both hands.
Bahrami brings cookies to a screening of Stranger at the Gate. (Smartypants Brooklyn )

McKinney says a lot of people have lauded him since the documentary came out. But as far as he's concerned, Bahrami is the hero of the story.

"Some of the responses I've gotten is, 'There needs to be more Macs in the world.' And I laughed about that," he said. "There doesn't need to be more of me. There needs to be more Bibis."

Stranger at the Gate was executive produced by activist and author Malala Yousafzai. You can stream for free online here

Interview with Bibi Bahrami and Mac McKinney produced by Morgan Passi.

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