Stranger at the Gate: How a Muslim community helped a US war veteran find peace

Stranger at the Gate: How a Muslim community helped a US war veteran find peace
The New Arab speaks to filmmaker Joshua Seftel, war veteran Richard "Mac" McKinney, and Bibi Bahrami from Indiana's Afghan community to discuss the Oscar-nominated short film Stranger at the Gate.
12 min read
Washington, D.C.
12 March, 2023
A screenshot from Stranger at the Gate trailer [YouTube]

An American war veteran had come to a mosque to destroy it. The congregants' hospitality gave him a change of heart and a sense of community, where he would find a home and a new faith.

An Oscar-nominated short film, Stranger at the Gate, tells their story. The New Arab spoke with filmmaker Joshua Seftel, war veteran Richard "Mac" McKinney, and Bibi Bahrami, a pillar of Muncie, Indiana's Afghan community. This is the story behind the film, the community and the man who is now on a mission to change hearts and minds, and end hatred.

Reflecting on childhood

McKinney describes himself as growing up as an inner-city kid from Cincinnati, Ohio. As a child of divorced parents, his maternal grandparents, from rural Kentucky, helped raise him. It was then that his grandfather scolded him for playing with Black kids in the neighbourhood. 

"I was almost the same age as my daughter in the story when I looked at him like he was a nutball. He didn't like that I was playing with 'coloured kids'. That didn't make any sense to me at that young age," McKinney says.

"It's funny. The story all comes back to me when I'm older now, and I'm my grandfather."

Joining the military

For him, he says the military was a way out and a way to another life and a decent job. 

When he joined, he hadn't even graduated from high school. He would eventually earn his GED (US secondary school equivalency) and two degrees.

"I fell in love with the military, the life," he recalls. "Back then, I had such a huge problem with authority, so I joined the Marine Corps, which gets a laugh out of people."

Despite the challenges, he says it helped his ego. He finally felt respected.

He joined the Marines for two enlistments, then joined the Army, which brought him to Iraq, where his tour ended when he was hit by an improvised explosive device (or an EID).

Where did the hatred come from?

"I don't have a definitive answer," McKinney says when asked where his hatred toward Muslims came from. He doesn't think 9/11 was the trigger. It might have started after that. 

"I learned it was easy to accept them as being evil. It ended up being something that grew on itself. I had no idea what was going on. It grows and grows. Towards the end, that's all it was."

McKinney says he was never into white supremacy. He says he didn't care how people looked, but he was bothered by where they were from. 

When he was caught in the EID, he says his hatred accelerated.

"I felt that my destiny was taken away from me. I felt that my destiny was to die in combat. When you come back in a flag-draped coffin, you're a hero. It comes back to a respect thing. That was taken away," he says, adding that he felt cheated.

Upon his return to the United States, he remembers thinking, "I didn't want them here. I didn't feel like other Americans wanted them here. I don't know how accurate that was. I was not a religious person. I claimed the title of being a nationalist. The flag was my cross. I didn't have any faith. It was all about the country."

A reconnaissance guy

McKinney describes his job in reconnaissance as going into places other people wouldn't go. 

"I was an infantry guy, a reconnaissance guy. I would go into places nobody else goes to. I would take out targets," he says.

"I killed people. At first, I think it affected me the way it would anyone, being aware and sensitive. Then it was about dehumanising people, like a paper target. Those feelings of pain and remorse went away. it worked," he recalls.

After leaving the Marines, he tried to make it as a professional fighter, as a kickboxer back in the US. A man he knew suggested going to Indiana, where a fight promoter was located. As it turned out, the money wasn't there. 

"An infantry guy doesn't easily move over the civilian world," McKinney says. "My buddies would joke that I only had three things I could do: a hitman, a pimp or a drug dealer."

As for skills that would make money, he says, "I walked into the Army recruiters and asked: When is the bus leaving?"

New missions, continued hatred

In the Army, he took on the role of an instructor. One of his deployments was in Bosnia, where the US military was tasked with protecting Muslims. McKinney was part of a team that apprehended war criminals and held them until someone would take them to the Hague. 

At that point, despite his mission, he wasn't keeping his hatred of Muslims to himself. 

"My friends heard stuff I was saying, and they said you've gotta chill," he recalls. "For me, Islam was a cancer that I had to rid the world of."

Despite making friends with his interpreter who was a Bosnian Muslim, he still hated her. 

When he went to Afghanistan, he remembers being offered food everywhere he went, but he refused to take it, interpreting the hospitality as bad intent.

In 2006, he was in Iraq, where he got restless. He says, "I begged to go on an operation. I needed to go outside the wire. That was the operation that did me in." 

The last thing he remembers, he was on the second floor of a building. While he was looking through a hole in the wall, an IED hit him.

"That's why I got out. They sent me out," he says.

I killed people. At first, I think it affected me the way it would anyone, being aware and sensitive. Then it was about dehumanising people, like a paper target. Those feelings of pain and remorse went away. it worked

Wounded and anxious back in the US

Back in the US as a wounded veteran, he recalls feelings of disassociation and uneasiness with society. A photo of his "band of brothers" where he's posing with four other men on deployment were men who all later took their own lives.

"I felt like I wasn't meant to be here," he says. "I started noticing all of these Muslim people. I felt like every time I turned around, I was seeing a woman in a hijab. I thought this can't be."

As he grappled with his anxiety about returning to civilian life amid an unexpected retirement from the military, that's when his plan to attack a Muslim community began to take shape, a plan that could have killed around 200 people.

"I came up with the idea: my country's done with me, so I'm done with it," he says. "I saw it as being a patriot. I knew what I was going to do was against our laws."

He imagined he would end up in federal prison with a needle in his arm, a fate he accepted.

"I didn't put any value on life, especially my own. I wanted to be dead," he says. "I actually thought that years down the road people would erect statues of me once they knew the truth. I was willing to be a martyr."

He says, "I already had the feelings. I was a Fox News alum. I guess I'd always watched Fox. Unfortunately, for my parents, that's still their thing. They swear by it. I guess I'd developed that echo box."

He had married a woman he had met through friends and adopted her daughter. For a while, it was going well. 

Though his wife, and others in his circle, knew he didn't like Muslims, they were unaware of how far he would go with those feelings. It wasn't until the Federal Bureau of Investigation was in front of their house, that she was aware he had made plans to detonate a bomb.

He showed up at the mosque or the Muncie Islamic Center, he was met with hospitality, initially by Jomo Williams, a Black man whose family goes far back in Muncie. After he asked questions about Islam, he was given a copy of the Quran, though to his surprise no one pressured him to convert

Planning the attack, then having a change of heart

McKinney made plans to set off a bomb over a period of about two years. In 2009, as he was building the bomb, he was also planning the right moment. 

He waited until the mosque had moved to a new location, away from the middle of a residential neighbourhood, where he thought he could avoid major "collateral damage". 

"I figured I'd do it during Ramadan on a Friday," he says, referring to the Muslim holy month and day of prayer when mosques are most crowded.

As he was in the planning process, his seven-year-old adopted daughter mentioned she had seen a woman in a hijab. Infuriated over hearing about the hijab, that's when McKinney decided to go to the mosque, to prove to his daughter that Muslims were evil.

"She was a 'why kind of girl' and I wanted to have tangible proof that what I was going to do was the right thing," he says.

Instead, when he showed up at the mosque or the Muncie Islamic Center, he was met with hospitality, initially by Jomo Williams, a Black man whose family goes far back in Muncie. After he asked questions about Islam, he was given a copy of the Quran, though to his surprise no one pressured him to convert.

"Islam aside, this is about humanity. I'd ask questions and they'd answer. If people had treated me differently, the outcome would have been different," he recalls. "These people didn't know what I was going to do. They were so kind. It was a huge lesson in humanity."

He says, "I thought, something isn't right here. My whole take on Muslims - that every terrorist was a Muslim and every Muslim was a terrorist - was completely the opposite."

"I was meeting people who lived more by the Quran than I'd previously known," he says.

After several visits to the mosque, he began disassembling the bomb. It was around this time that he got the idea to convert.

To his surprise, members of the mosque he spoke with discouraged him, suggesting he take his time and study the faith before making a decision. 

Shortly thereafter, he did convert, a decision that has shaped his life path ever since.

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Afghan hospitality in Indiana

After several visits to the mosque, he got an invitation for dinner at the home of a local Afghan family.

Bibi Bahrami, along with her husband Saber and children, hosted guests for traditional Afghan food for friends, including McKinney. That evening, Bahrami asked him if a rumour about him building a bomb was true. He confessed that it, though by that time, he had dismantled it.

"There were rumours he had created a bomb. That's why I asked him into my house," says Bahrami. "I asked him, 'Brother Richard, it may be a rumour, but I heard you had created a bomb to kill us. He was embarrassed and put his head down and said yes in front of all those people."

As uncomfortable as that moment was, in addition to the FBI visit to his home, making his then-wife aware of his plans, it was the beginning of a lasting friendship between McKinney and Bahrami, or Mac and Bibi.

An unlikely friendship and mentorship

Bahrami started by mentoring him and helping get him a leadership position at the mosque. He became vice president of the mosque. She was then voted in unanimously as president, making her the first woman president of the mosque. When he started his degree at Ball State University, she encouraged him to become president of the Muslim students' association.

The two were studying at the same time, both having missed out on the education they had long hoped for. While McKinney had entered the military at a young age, Bahrami had been a refugee twice as a teenager, first at 13 in Pakistan and then at 19 in the US, in both instances foregoing her studies to focus on helping other refugees around her.

"I started with the ABCs here," she says. "My dearest husband hired a teacher while I was having children."
She took classes for her GED, which she earned after her fourth child. She then got an arts degree from Ball State. After her sixth child, she started her non-profit to assist Afghan refugees, many of whom resettled in Muncie. 

"I kind of compromised my education," says Bahrami, who has four out of six children who have gone into medicine, another who has recently finished Yale, and the sixth who is finishing Stanford with a degree in computer science.

Inspiration for a film

Filmmaker Joshua Seftel read about the story of the planned attack on the mosque and wanted to tell the story of everyone involved.

From an early age, he has been drawn to stories of marginalised communities. Having grown up in a rural part of upstate New York without a sizeable Jewish community, he was subjected to antisemitic bullying by schoolmates. After 9/11, the discrimination he saw Muslims face resonated with his childhood experience.

"At that point, I was an established filmmaker, and I thought I could do something in a small way," he says. That's when he started making films about American Muslims and developing platforms for their stories. 

When he came across the story, it was not difficult to get the talkative and charismatic McKinney on board. But for Bibi and Saber Bahrami, they seemed to see their role in the story as living their everyday lives. 

Seftel sees McKinney's story as proof that someone who had previously been so different could change. He sees the Bahramis, who founded the mosque, as a new kind of hero. 

"They're showing us the power of love and compassion," he says.

The film's Oscar nomination, in addition to it being executive produced by Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, has given it the buzz Seftel hopes will help spread the story further.

So far, the film has been screened in more than 600 theatres, has been shown at schools across the US and has been shown to veterans' groups, often with Q&As hosted by Seftel, McKinney and Bahrami, who always bakes cookies for the events she attends.

Reception to the film has been overwhelmingly positive, though McKinney says he sometimes gets messages online from people calling him terms like a traitor.

"Mac is the ultimate messenger. He's seen it all," says Seftel.

"Bibi, if she sees someone who hates Muslims, she'll invite them over for dinner and break bread with them. If more people were like Bibi, the world would be a better place."