The growing debate over Islam's place in America, which is escalating in light of plans to build a mosque near ground zero, is increasingly playing out on city streets across the country. On the sides of buses, to be precise.
Several groups are engaging in something of a religious ad war over the merits and misconceptions of Islam, a religion that remains a mystery to many Americans.
Ads by a group calling itself Stop Islamization of America, which aims to provide refuge for former Muslims, read: "Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got questions? Get answers!"
Those ads, appearing on dozens of buses in the San Francisco Bay Area, Miami, and New York, are a response to ones from a Muslim group that say, "The way of life of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Islam. Got questions? Get answers."
In New York, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community sponsored this campaign: "Muslims for Peace. Love for All – Hatred for None."
The ads are part of a larger conversation over Islam's image, which Muslim organizations say has been hurt by extremists both at home and abroad. But many conservative groups say that concern about the spread of Islam isn't alarmist, pointing to evidence of imams in this country inciting militancy and a growing number of American Muslims arrested for plotting terror attacks.
A self-described "anti-jihadist," Pamela Geller is the conservative blogger and executive director of Stop Islamization of America who conceived of the "Leaving Islam" ad campaign. Her bus posters, she says, were partly inspired by the ongoing Florida case involving a teenage girl who ran away from her Muslim parents after converting to Christianity. The girl, Rifqa Bary, made headlines last year when she claimed her father threatened to kill her for becoming a Christian.
Ms. Geller described her campaign as "a defense of religious freedom," in an e-mail response to questions. The goal, she says, is mainly "to help ex-Muslims who are in trouble" and also "to raise awareness of the threat that apostates live under even in the West."
But some religious rights organizations contend that the real intent is to incite fear about a faith that, according to recent studies, remains misunderstood. A 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions.
"In this post-9/11 world … it's almost like there's some political and spiritual currency to be gained by being anti-Islamic," says Steve Spreitzer, programs director for the Detroit-based interfaith group Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion.
RefugeFromIslam.com, the website promoted on Geller's ads, contends that Muslim Americans who "long to be free" of their religion are in danger of being killed, and offers protection, including "safe houses," for those who want out. Muslim rights groups and religious leaders say there is no penalty for leaving Islam and that the Koran condemns killing as a sin.
The campaign has whipped up controversy in several cities. In Detroit, which has one of the highest Muslim populations in the country, Geller sued the SMART transit agency in federal district court after it rejected the ads.
In the Bay Area, more than 125 religious leaders of various faiths signed a statement in July denouncing the ads as "Islamophobic" and saying they "promote fear of Muslim Americans."
Geller says calling the ads anti-Islam is "a tactic to divert attention" away from the "plight" of ex-Muslims.
In Florida, the Miami-Dade Transit agency initially pulled the ads but then reinstated them days later after Geller and her group threatened to sue. Miami-Dade Transit spokeswoman Karla Damian says the county attorney had reviewed the ad campaign and determined that "although considered offensive by some, it did not constitute removal."
And in the Bay Area, where both tolerance and free speech are regarded as sacred, the 30 bus ads that recently began rolling through San Mateo County have been met with surprise and bewilderment.
Omar Ahmad, a Muslim city council member in San Mateo who also sits on the board of directors for SamTrans, the bus agency running the ads, says he found the campaign "bizarre" but didn't think it would have much effect. "I have a great deal of faith in folks in the Bay Area to take a critical eye to what they see and read," he says.
Geller and her supporters point out that transit agencies in Detroit and elsewhere had no problem with a controversial campaign sponsored by a group of atheists last year. Those ads, also on buses and billboards in many cities, read: "Don't believe in God? You're not alone." Although the ads offended some, they were deemed free speech.
The ads in New York City sponsored by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community recently began appearing on 100 New York City buses and promote the website MuslimsForPeace.org, which condemns terrorism and advocates for a separation of church and state.
Waseem Sayed, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community spokesperson, says the campaign is not a response to Geller's ads but an ongoing effort to reclaim the public image of Islam, which he says has been "hijacked by extremists."
"It's an effort to have the Muslims, the silent majority, snatch the flag of Islam away from these extremists and hoist it above ourselves," he says.