MERIDEN — Ted Hakey is enjoying some shade and food during a midweek cookout, talking with friends in between bites.
His demeanor seems stress free, despite the fact that he has to surrender Aug. 15 for a six-month federal prison sentence, as he discusses caverns, culture, and cars. Whatever the topic, though, the conversation invariably shifts back to Hakey’s latest focus — combating Islamophobia.
Hakey is an unlikely advocate, having pleaded guilty in February to shooting at the Baitul Aman mosque in South Meriden, which neighbors his home, in anger just hours after terrorists killed 130 men in Paris on Nov. 13.
Ahmadiyya Muslims preach forgiveness and peace as core values, but even they acknowledge they didn’t expect Hakey to be the friend and ally he has become since their first meeting at a federal courthouse this past spring.
Chapter President Muhammad Qureshi said the congregation decided after the incident to be more engaged in and open to the community, but leaders were still unsure for weeks on how to respond to Hakey.
A mid-January sermon by Khalifa Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the international leader of the Ahmadiyya community, on the “essence of forgiveness” resonated with the congregation and gave them direction, Qureshi said.
Both Hakey and Qureshi said they didn’t know what to expect when they and a few others from the congregation met at a Hartford federal courthouse in April so that Hakey could apologize.
Qureshi said Hakey was visibly shaken and brought to tears, which, in turn, evoked similar emotions from members of the congregation.
The two sides formed an immediate bond.
A week later, Hakey appeared at the mosque to apologize to the rest of the congregation, many of whom didn’t know he’d be coming, and he said he quickly learned to differentiate the teachings of the mosque next door with the views espoused by terrorists groups like ISIS.
“The more I’m learning about the Quran, it’s not what I thought,” Hakey said, adding he reads from the religious book almost daily.
He said the hatred toward Muslims is largely the result of ignorance and a lack of understanding of Islam’s true teachings, and the biggest obstacle in educating the public is the amount of misinformation spread on social media.
Since the sentencing, when a judge removed a restriction on Hakey’s contact with the mosque, he has been helping the congregation get out its message that Muslims who endorse violence against nonbelievers have distorted the religion.
Hakey has brought his friends to the mosque, facilitated a conversation with the administrator of a website for military snipers about posting information, and is trying to arrange meetings with veterans groups.
Zahir Mannan, community outreach director for the mosque, said the congregation has been able to establish positive relationships with other religious organizations and city officials, but has had little success engaging veterans groups before Hakey’s involvement, even though many Muslims serve in the military.
Mannan also said the Amadiyya community in particular embraces being in the U.S. because of its protection of religious freedoms, as members are persecuted even in predominantly Muslim countries.
“We’re here to win the hearts, not territories, and we’re here to bend minds, not heads,” he said as he waited Wednesday for Hakey’s arrival at an interfaith cookout at Vasa Park for Eid al-Fitr, celebrating the end of Ramadan.
Lee Gezelman, a Manchester resident and long-time friend who also attended the cookout, said he has also seen a change in Hakey.
“I think the major thing is his awareness and his understanding now,” he said.
The congregation has seen the change, too, prompting Qureshi to advocate in June that Hakey be sentenced only to supervised release and be allowed to begin working immediately to combat Islamophobia.
Qureshi said the mosque always intended to accept an apology when they met in April at the federal courthouse, but admits he would have asked for Hakey to serve jail time if he wasn’t as willing to work with the congregation.
“We were not forgiving him to make people happy, we were forgiving him for God’s sake because God has told us in the Quran to forgive people who are repentant,” he said.
He said other Muslim leaders questioned the response, but many have ultimately agreed after learning of the mosque’s reasoning.
After Wednesday’s cookout, Hakey went back to the mosque to pray with Mannan, Qureshi, and the rest of the congregation.
Then more hugs, more laughs, more plans for spreading the message of peace.
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