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Arabic billboard on I-94 directed toward Trump: A conversation starter?

While the Michigan billboard creators sought to provoke Donald Trump in a clever, lighthearted way, they also hope it will lead to dialogue between Arab-Americans and their neighbors. 

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    A billboard over I-94 from Detroit to Dearborn, Mich. The ad reads in Arabic: 'Donald Trump, he can’t read this, but he is afraid of it.'
    Courtesy of The Nuisance Committee
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To Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News in Dearborn, Mich., a billboard with Arabic script over the highway isn’t just a clever anti-Trump ad.

The sign, which reads from right to left, “Donald Trump, he can’t read this, but he is afraid of it,” is an invitation to get to know Dearborn's Arab-American community, the largest in the nation, and all Muslim-Americans.

“What are you afraid of Mr. Trump? People are only scared of what they don’t know,” Mr. Siblani, a Lebanese-American, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “If you understand what this [billboard] really means, you don’t have to be afraid. Trump doesn’t understand our community.”

Siblani wasn’t involved in the creation of the billboard. It was funded by the Nuisance Committee, a super PAC started by Max Temkin, one of the creators of the edgy Cards Against Humanity game.

This isn’t the committee’s first satirical ad against the Republican presidential nominee. It has said Donald Trump is not a good team player in the video game “Overwatch,” and has goaded the billionaire into buying out its billboard near O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. 

However, the billboard near the entrance to Dearborn goes a step beyond merely satire. It encapsulates the frustration of Arab-Americans over the xenophobic rhetoric Mr. Trump has been accused of spreading against them, as well as Hispanics, African-Americans, and those with disabilities. Yet, it also aspires to encourage understanding between them and their non-Arab neighbors at a time when Islamophobia is high.

The billboard is meant to “improve the relations between Arab-Americans and other Americans by conversations and questions out of curiosity,” says Ahmed Abu Seif, a member of the Nuisance Committee, and a Kuwaiti seeking asylum here for his participation in the campaign to free Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, or Shawkan.

“It will make more relations among all of them,” Mr. Seif, who translated the ad into Arabic for the PAC, tells the Monitor over the phone.

The billboard, which appeared on I-94 over the weekend, will remain posted through Election Day Nov. 8, Melissa Harris, a Nuisance Committee spokeswoman told the Detroit Free Press. About 331,540 people drive by it on their way to Dearborn or Detroit each week.

Ms. Harris tells the Monitor the committee didn’t want to be cruel in its attack of the Republican candidate.

“We want to be clever and funny,” she says.

But it also hopes Arab-Americans will appreciate the committee went out of its way to fund the $4,850 ad in Arabic.

“It means a lot that we’re speaking to them in language that they know,” she says. “It also requires people who don’t know the language to look it up online, or ask someone they know who does speak the language.”

When Mr. Temkin posted a picture of the billboard on his Twitter account, many users asked for a translation. The post was shared about 21,000 times from Sunday to Monday, and received about 40,000 likes. The same image posted on the Arab American News’s Facebook page has received 810 likes and 410 shares by Tuesday evening.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Throughout his campaign, Trump has been accused of inciting Muslim hysteria, sowing anti-Muslim rhetoric, and encouraging hate crimes against Muslims. He has called for a “complete shutdown” of all Muslims’ entrance into the United States, has said “Islam hates us,” and accused Muslim-Americans of harboring terrorists.

This language appears to have led to violence as well, according to a new report published by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernadino. The nonpartisan researcher found in September that Trump’s rhetoric in response to the San Bernardino attack could have contributed to a steep rise in hate crimes afterward.

A poll conducted by Reuters and Ipsos in June and July also found Trump supporters are twice as likely (58 percent) as Clinton supporters (24 percent) to have negative views of Islam.

While a number of factors contribute to the incidence of hate crimes, ignorance and isolation may play a role, according to The Atlantic's Clare Foran

“Most Americans say they do not personally know any Muslims, although those who do report positive views of Muslims in general,” writes Ms. Foran.

The billboard touches on the heart of this – that xenophobia derives from fear and ignorance, a point Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), agrees with.

“This sign is making light of what community members here have been saying this election cycle – that is, Mr. Trump did not know our community. Mr. Trump and his acolytes say all types of things about Muslims. They don’t have a clue,” he tells the Monitor. “When I saw [the billboard], I actually chuckled. ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ ”

The Nuisance Committee isn’t the first to exploit humor to counter anti-Islamic sentiment this election. New York comedian Negin Farsad filmed an ironic commentary in Washington Square in Manhattan, asking pedestrians if they were Muslim or not. If someone said no, she’d say: “Prove it!” and ask them to eat from a plate of bacon (which is forbidden in Islam). 

Siblani, the publisher of the Arab American News, says the paper has received numerous requests for translations since posting a picture of the billboard on its Facebook page. He hopes he will also receive a call from Trump or his team. He says he has reached out to the campaign throughout the election.

“We do not want a shouting match. We do not want a food fight. We want a conversation with him,” he says. “Are you afraid of something we can talk about and maybe discuss?”

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