Irmo Mayor Hardy King came under fire in June after The Daily Beast wrote about the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant memes he posted on Facebook.
The mayor of the Columbia suburb told The Post and Courier that he didn't know any Muslims in town and had never met one.
Shortly after, King received a call from an Irmo native who was raised Muslim and wanted to talk about the religion. That conversation led to King meeting more Muslims.
In a move that surprised many, King organized an Aug. 30 event at Town Hall called "Demystifying Islam."
Last week, King reflected on his newfound relationships with local Muslims. He was humbled by their response to his Facebook memes, which had asserted that they were offended by the American flag.
"That probably did more to humble me, to make me think, 'Huh, I could use a whole lot more of these people as friends,'" King said.
"He wasn’t yelling and screaming and hollering and calling me a bigot," King said of the man who called him. "He was just a young man with a concern. And he voiced it very openly, very peacefully. ... It made me think, 'Maybe I need to rethink this attitude.'"
After word got around that King wasn't a bigot, other Muslims reached out. Chaudhry Sadiq, president of the Peace and Integration Council of North America, invited King to visit his mosque in Columbia.
The visited the mosque during Eid al-Fitr — the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown.
"As God would have it, we agreed to celebrate the end of Ramadan," Sadiq said.
That evening, King met several Muslims who shook his hand and thanked him for coming. He learned that Muslims pray five times daily, often by themselves at home or during work. At the mosque, prayer is led by an imam — a religious leader who reads from the Quran in Arabic. He learned that some of Irmo's Muslims are doctors.
Overwhelmed by the kindness, King pulled Sadiq aside.
"Are you sure these people you're introducing me to have read those posts?" he asked, referring to the memes.
"Yeah, yeah, we all saw it," Sadiq said. "And we invited you here. They're not bothered."
King reflected on how a fear of the unknown had informed his world view. When he watched TV, he saw Muslims blamed for terrorist attacks, and he associated the religion with terrorism. A devout Southern Baptist, King also reflected on how the Muslim style of prayer differs from his own. Christians can pray any time they want, but he himself is not consistent.
"If half the Christians in this country prayed five times a day," he said, "we’d have a lot of stuff solved."
King agreed to help Sadiq plan a community event aimed at eliminating Muslim stereotypes. That event, "Demystifying Islam," was set for Aug. 30, but as the date drew near, King became nervous. What if an angry citizen showed up and became violent? What if nobody showed up?
King expected some backlash, based on the threatening nature of some emails, such as one that read: "What are you doing, inviting these terrorists into our neighborhood?"
"I thought you were a good guy, one of us. Are you a Muslim now?" read another.
More than 100 people packed into Town Hall. The room was quiet as Sadiq's gave a 45-minute presentation on Islam's history and beliefs. His wife said it was so quiet that she could hear a pin drop.
About 20 people then raised their hands and asked questions of King, Sadiq and two other panelists. One of the first questioners introduced himself as veteran who had served in Afghanistan.
"All Muslims are terrorists," he said. "They all are. They wanna kill you."
Sadiq replied that extremists wrongly claim to be Muslim: The Quran explicitly instructs not to use violence, except for self-defense or in the defense of others. "We're not all terrorists," Sadiq said.
The man walked away. The rest of the questioners were earnest and courteous.
King said he learned at least 12 families live in his town, and he hopes to meet all of them.