Culture Ethics

Facing backlash, US Muslims counter with new advertising campaign

Waqas Syed, Deputy Secretary General- IT, Islamic Circle of North America, poses for a portrait at his office in Anaheim, Calif.
Waqas Syed, Deputy Secretary General- IT, Islamic Circle of North America, poses for a portrait at his office in Anaheim, Calif. With messages that are part religious invitation to explore the Muslim faith and part public relations, the billboards anchor a national campaign to showcase Islam as a religion of love and tolerance. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Waqas Syed, Deputy Secretary General- IT, Islamic Circle of North America, poses for a portrait at his office in Anaheim, Calif.

Reuters

Waqas Syed, Deputy Secretary General- IT, Islamic Circle of North America, poses for a portrait at his office in Anaheim, Calif. With messages that are part religious invitation to explore the Muslim faith and part public relations, the billboards anchor a national campaign to showcase Islam as a religion of love and tolerance. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) Stark black billboards loomed over highways and faded commercial strips, offering solace to the troubled: “Looking for the answers in life?” one asked. “Discover Muhammad.”

With messages that are part religious invitation to explore the Muslim faith and part public relations, the billboards anchor a national campaign to showcase Islam as a religion of love and tolerance, aimed at Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

But the campaign by the mainstream Islamic Circle of North America, which is sponsoring billboards in other cities to publicize the Muslim prophet’s message, could also spark a backlash amid a spike in anti-Islamic sentiment marked by protests, advertising campaigns and sometimes vandalism and violence.

“We thought a proper approach would be to actually educate the larger public about his personality, which exemplifies love and brotherhood,” said Waqas Syed, ICNA Deputy Secretary General.

The billboard campaign is not the first high-profile bid by a Muslim group to bolster Islam’s image in America, tarnished by militant attacks. But it is the largest such effort by ICNA, the group most closely identified with billboard campaigns in recent years, and it includes some billboards that are clearly aimed at converting others.

“Under the circumstances, it’s a pretty bold move,” said Todd Green, a professor who studies Islamophobia, or fear of Islam, at Luther College in Iowa. “When you’re a minority religion, you face a lot of pressure from the majority population not to proselytize.”

By asking Americans to discover Muhammad, the campaign is similar in some ways to efforts by evangelical Christians whose roadside billboards, especially in the U.S. heartland, have sought to draw Americans into their fold with messages promoting Jesus as the Messiah, he said.

Organizers said they launched the program as a response to a deadly Paris attack by militants on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January over its anti-Muslim cartoons, aiming their message in part at other Muslims to say that violence is not an appropriate response to provocation.

By coincidence, the first billboards went up days after two U.S. Muslim gunmen were killed in May as they tried to attack a Texas exhibit of cartoons depicting Muhammad, and shortly before heavily armed anti-Islam protesters demonstrated outside a Phoenix mosque.

A previous billboard campaign by ICNA two years ago invited Americans to see similarities between Christianity and Islam. A campaign by another U.S. Muslim group tried to show non-violent interpretations of jihad, such as a holy struggle to lead a moral life.

Both campaigns prompted angry responses.

The latest campaign, paid for by local ICNA chapters, will eventually include about 100 billboards from Philadelphia to Baltimore, Atlanta and Miami.

Some signs, like those in Sacramento, are clearly invitations to explore the Muslim faith while others aim to portray Muhammad as a supporter of women’s rights and religious tolerance.

“Kindness is a mark of faith,” a billboard in Elizabeth, N.J., reads. In Miami, another offers, “Muhammad believed in peace, social justice, women’s rights.”

Sharing that view of Muhammad is more important to ICNA than proselytizing, Syed said, though newcomers who want to convert would be welcomed.

Muslims make up 0.9 percent of the U.S. population, but the number is expected to double by 2050, driven by immigration, high birth rates and a young population, the Pew Research Center says.

The first wave of signs, including those in Sacramento and Los Angeles, came down last week. New ones will be posted in San Francisco, Dallas and other cities in coming weeks. Despite tensions, the billboards have not been defaced, and negative responses have been few, said Imam Khalid Griggs, vice president of ICNA and leader of a mosque in North Carolina.

Last week, a group that fears radical Islam will grow in the United States erected billboards around St. Louis showing cartoon drawings of Mohammad, meant to flout the religion’s ban on depicting his image. In February, a Washington, D.C. mosque was vandalized twice in one week.

Bodia Wardany, a parishioner at the Salam Islamic Center in Sacramento said: “I think it’s a great idea, considering all the misperceptions about the faith and the terrorist, fanatical groups misrepresenting the faith itself.”

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein, Sebastian Malo and Laila Kearney.)

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  • “Some signs, like those in Sacramento, are clearly invitations to explore the Muslim faith while others aim to portray Muhammad as a supporter of women’s rights and religious tolerance.”

    ha ha funny! Mohammad a supporter of women’s rights and religious tolerance? Totally FALSE!!!!!

  • Ask the Yazidi women how wonderful life is under Islam, how much they enjoy being sex slaves and sold at auctions. Please do not tell me that ISIS is not Islamic , they follow precisely Islamic jurisprudence in this regard.

  • ISIS is to Islam what the KKK are to Christianity. The ugly side of religious extremism. Islam in the US is far different that Islam in a fundamentalist dictatorship state like Saudi Arabia. America is hardly a hotbed of extremism. We are where people go to flee the extremists.

    In the 1940’s one would not equate Lutherans in America to Lutherans in Nazi Germany. One would not equate Orthodox Christians in Chicago with those in Bosnia in the 90’s.

    This is America, as a rule we do not accept, “X religion is evil” to be an argument that has to be taken seriously. In fact our system and culture is designed to ridicule such arguments.

  • If the Pope had an army raging across Europe, converting or enslaving with the goal of making all the world Catholic, would the Muslims be expected to be accepting and welcoming to Catholics?
    First they should get a color consultant.
    “Stark black billboards loomed over highways …”
    Who else uses black as their favorite background? First brighten the outlook.

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