Facing backlash, U.S. Muslims counter with new advertising campaign

Tue Jun 16, 2015 7:14pm EDT
 
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By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - In California’s capital city of Sacramento this month, 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 evangelical.

"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 Mohammad, 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 Islamist 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.   Continued...

 
A billboard sponsored by Islamic Circle of North America is shown on a street in Sacramento, California in this undated handout photo released to Reuters June 16, 2015.  REUTERS/Islamic Circle of North America/Handout via Reuters