Aftab Khan and his family have lived in the Gillette area for over a hundred years, and a few years back the family opened a mosque there. Bret Colvin started a Facebook page called Stop Islam In Gillette and, after the mosque opened, he knocked on the door during services while a large number of people rallied behind him, some of them armed. The event was covered extensively in the local and the international news. Quickly, the online rhetoric between them grew ugly.
But until now, they’ve never met in person.
After all the negotiating it took to get us here, it’s kind amazing to be sitting down at the table with these two. It’d taken months for me to arrange this conversation. Part of it was my own doubt that a civil discourse could work between two people so divided. Now that we’re all in the same room, I really have no idea what to expect. Aftab Khan’s family owns several hotels, and he invited us to one of his restaurants. The two shake hands politely, but quickly, and then the three of us sit down to share a meal.
I start by reminding both of them of the rules of civil discourse.
- Not to interrupt
- To share speaking time fairly
- Keep an open mind
- Be respectful even if you don’t respect someone’s ideas
- Ask each other questions
- Keep a sense of humor
My job as the mediator is to make sure we stick to those rules; my job is not to take sides. And I intentionally have no real goal, except maybe to make sure they both feel heard by each other. We start by helping recognize each other’s humanity by sharing some childhood stories. An easy place to start.
Both Khan and Colvin grew up only 100 miles away from each other in northeastern Wyoming and Colvin is only eight years older than Khan.
Aftab Khan’s uncle is Tamale Louie, a renowned Sheridan character, who was featured in an article in The New Yorker called “Citizen Khan.” He moved to Sheridan in the early 1900’s from what is now Pakistan and opened a restaurant serving hamburgers and Mexican food. All the locals loved him and Sheridan recently built a sculpture in their downtown for him. Eventually, he raised six children there and several family members joined him in the area, including Aftab’s father. Now the Khan family numbers in the hundreds and live all around the Rocky Mountain region. But just to show you how tangled these men’s lives are, in that New Yorker article about Tamale Louie, Bret Colvin makes an appearance. It chronicles his protests against the Khan family mosque and quotes him using strong derogatory language against them online.