Area run­ners make a state­ment with the shirts on their backs.

Pak­istan na­tive and friends spread mes­sage of in­clu­sion: ‘I am Mus­lim. I am Amer­i­can.’

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY KELYN SOONG kelyn.soong@wash­post.com

On pa­per, 31-year-old Mu­dasar Cha­hal was sim­ply one of sev­eral thou­sand run­ners who braved the below-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and heavy winds the morn­ing of March 11 to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll half-marathon in Washington.

There was noth­ing strik­ing about Cha­hal’s fin­ish time of 2:45:15 last week­end, more than an hour and a half slower than what he ran as a teenager. But Cha­hal didn’t reg­is­ter for the 13.1-mile race to set a per­sonal record. Wear­ing cus­tom-made bright-blue T-shirts with the words “I am Mus­lim. I am Amer­i­can.” em­bla­zoned on the front and back, Cha­hal and five of his friends run­ning the half­marathon were there to spread a mes­sage.

“We are Mus­lim, but we are also Amer­i­can,” said Cha­hal, an Alexandria res­i­dent. “Just like ev­ery­one else, we love this coun­try. We just hap­pen to be Mus­lim. That’s the only dif­fer­ence.”

The re­cent travel ban of those from ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries by Pres­i­dent Trump and hate crimes against Mus­lims around the coun­try mo­ti­vated Cha­hal to take ac­tion.

Cha­hal em­i­grated to the United States from Pak­istan with his fam­ily at age 14, as­sim­i­lat­ing to Amer­i­can cul­ture by join­ing the cross-coun­try and track and field teams at Ar­ling­ton’s Wake­field High. De­spite hav­ing never par­tic­i­pated in ath­let­ics in his na­tive Pak­istan, he made var­sity both his ju­nior and se­nior sea­sons for the War­riors be­fore go­ing off to com­pete at the now-de­funct Vir­ginia In­ter­mont Col­lege, fol­lowed by one year at Cameron Univer­sity in Ok­la­homa.

In 2005 at age 18, Cha­hal won the Coun­try Mu­sic half-marathon in Nashville in a blis­ter­ing 1:10:05 and was the run­ner-up in 2006 — facts his friends proudly shared to fel­low run­ners at last week­end’s race.

“It’s a fun sport,” Cha­hal said. “It re­lieves all the wor­ries about your life. You go and run and you’re stress-free af­ter­ward.”

Through­out his time in school, Cha­hal de­vel­oped a love for his adopted coun­try and be­came a cit­i­zen in 2012. He said he has never per­son­ally been tar­geted but that he has felt dis­heart­ened by the news of vi­o­lence to­ward Mus­lims — or those per­ceived to be Mus­lim — and the in­creas­ing neg­a­tiv­ity to­ward his re­li­gion.

About a month ago, Cha­hal and his friends, sev­eral of whom are also ac­com­plished run­ners, de­cided that the D.C. Rock ‘n’ Roll half-marathon would serve as the per­fect set­ting to de­but their T-shirts, which also have the let­ters “USA” printed in the front. Even though not all mem­bers of Cha­hal’s group are Mus­lim (two are from In­dia, one Hindu and one Sikh), they all share the same sen­ti­ments.

There were three highly pub­li­cized at­tacks on In­di­ans in the United States over the span of 10 days ear­lier this year and two of them are be­ing in­ves­ti­gated as pos­si­ble hate crimes, The Post’s An­nie Gowen re­ported.

“Peo­ple are say­ing, ‘You don’t be­long here, go back to your coun­try,’ ” said Cha­hal, who sells real es­tate and also works in his fam­ily’s limou­sine busi­ness. “It’s ac­cel­er­ated with the travel ban and rhetoric of the re­cent elec­tion, so we just wanted to say, ‘Hey, we love this coun­try. We want to con­trib­ute to this coun­try be­cause this coun­try gave us a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties. Let’s work to­gether in­stead of di­vid­ing the coun­try and achieve our goal of re­main­ing No. 1.’ ”

As the six ran through the course sport­ing iden­ti­cal T-shirts and al­ter­nat­ing car­ry­ing three Amer­i­can flags, fel­low run­ners ap­proached and chat­ted with them. A few took pho­tos and the over­all re­cep­tion was very pos­i­tive, Cha­hal said.

Cha­hal was not ex­pect­ing any back­lash for the T-shirts, but he was still pleas­antly sur­prised at the out­pour­ing of sup­port. Next month, the group plans to travel to Ken­tucky and re­peat the same ef­fort at the Ken­tucky Half Clas­sic af­ter be­ing in­vited by a doc­tors’ as­so­ci­a­tion that heard about their mis­sion.

There, Cha­hal hopes to con­tinue to give more Amer­i­cans a chance to see the Mus­lim com­mu­nity he knows.

“We are a na­tion of di­ver­sity,” Cha­hal said. “We love ev­ery­body. It doesn’t mat­ter what your faith, ori­gin or creed is. That’s the beauty of this coun­try.” Emily Guskin con­trib­uted to this re­port. Ex­cerpted from wash­ing­ton­post.com/ dc­sports­bog

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF AGHA HASNAIN

TOP: Mu­dasar Cha­hal, third from right, and his friends show their pa­tri­o­tism at the Rock ‘n’ Roll half-marathon. ABOVE: The shirts drew a sup­port­ive re­sponse.

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