Why one group is posting pro-Islam billboards across the country

The Islamic Circle of North America plans to sponsor one hundred pro-Islam billboards across the country, in an attempt to counteract anti-Muslim sentiment.

Islamic Circle of North America/Reuters
A billboard sponsored by Islamic Circle of North America is shown on a street in Sacramento, California in this undated photo. The Islamic Circle of North America, which is erecting similar billboards in other cities, wants to persuade non-Muslims that the faith does not promote terrorism.

Amidst the road signs, fast food advertisements, and construction warnings, motorists on US roadways will spy something different in their travels this summer: stark, black pro-Muhammad billboards with messages like, “Looking for the answers in life? Discover Muhammad."

Behind the billboards is Muslim-American education group Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which says it will erect 100 billboards around the country in a massive, high-profile PR campaign designed to show the softer side of Islam.

The campaign also aims to counter years of negative publicity from events like the deadly attack at Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, as well as provocative campaigns like the "draw Muhammad" cartoon contest organized earlier this year in Garland, Texas. 

“We thought a proper approach would be to actually educate the larger public about [Muhammad's] personality, which exemplifies love and brotherhood,” Waqas Syed, Islamic Circle of North America deputy secretary general, told Reuters.

Some of the 100 billboards, with messages like, “Kindness is a mark of faith” and “Muhammad believed in peace, social justice, women’s rights," have already been posted in cities in California, New Jersey, and Florida.

But the billboards come at a time when tensions between Muslims and parts of American society appear to be increasingly strained, highlighted by incidents like a shooting outside the Texas anti-Muhammad cartoon contest, a congregation of armed anti-Islam protesters outside a Phoenix mosque, and social media attacks on the faith following the release of the film, "American Sniper."

In a climate already rife with religious tension, particularly around the Islamic faith, some worry the billboards, which have been described as part-PR, part-evangelizing, could provoke more controversy and backlash.

In fact, the pro-Muhammad billboards will hit roadways just as a set of anti-Muhammad billboards, depicting a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, land in St. Louis. Behind those billboards is Pamela Gellar of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), the same group behind the Texas "draw Muhammad" cartoon contest. Ms. Gellar says her billboards are designed to promote free speech.

In October 2014, a series of provocative anti-Islam advertisements from Gellar's AFDI, one of which attributed the quote “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” to "Hamas MTV," was set to run in New York City's buses and subways until the Metropolitan Transit Authority rejected the ad, saying it “would imminently incite or provoke violence.”

That is the sort of negative publicity ICNA says it is trying to counter with its pro-Muhammad billboards. And it's not the first time it has done so.

In 2013, the group launched a campaign showing the similarities between Christianity and Islam, which views Jesus as a prophet, but not as the son of God. In 2012, it launched another campaign designed to dispel myths about "Shariah," or Islamic law. And in 2011, ICNA set up a 24/7 toll-free hotline to answer questions about Islam.

But considering the climate, its latest campaign may be its most high profile.

As Todd Green, a professor who studies Islamophobia at Luther College in Iowa, told Reuters, "Under the circumstances, it's a pretty bold move."

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