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Learning to defuse Islamophobia

A poster campaign in Boston bus shelters aims to teach the art of de-escalation in the face of anti-Muslim confrontations.

Owen Mortner/The Christian Science Monitor
What to Do: Posters advise bystanders on how to react should they witness an Islamophobic act.

On a sweltering summer day, a Boston bus stop shelter displays an array of the usual advertisements: the newest Vitaminwater, subway maps, and promos for a Netflix show. And then there is a poster with these words: “What to do if you are witnessing Islamophobic harassment.”

The sign is part of a public service campaign that kicked off in Boston in July following a successful run in San Francisco. The graphic guide illustrates how bystanders could help a victim of anti-Muslim behavior. The first step, although not necessarily intuitive, would be to redirect an escalating situation: Ask the victim if he or she has seen any good movies lately.

“It’s all about shifting the focus from the perpetrator and engaging the victim,” says Faisa Sharif, a spokeswoman for Boston’s Somali neighborhood and coordinator for the project. “Direct confrontation would just inflame the situation.”

The poster campaign is one example of how individuals and communities are working to maintain an inclusive and open society in an uncertain and caustic political environment. While US Muslims report widespread suspicion about their faith, they also say they have noted an increase of compassion from non-Muslims, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center. Nearly half of Muslims say they have received encouragement from non-Muslims in the past year, an increase over past polls.

The poster actually has its roots in France. Last year, more than 30 towns there banned the “burkini,” a bathing suit designed for Muslim women, calling it “the uniform of extremist Islam.” French graphic artist Marie-Shirine Yener then took to her drawing board and came up with a step-by-step guide on how to defuse an Islamophobic act.

“There was a mood of anti-Islam sentiment in the air,” says Ms. Yener, who goes by Maeril professionally. “I felt that I needed to do something.” 

Yener posted the illustrations to Facebook where they caught the attention of four friends halfway across the globe in San Francisco. The women – Hanako Asakura, Lea Grundy, Alene Pearson, and Kathleen Wilson – decided their city could use the same message and launched a crowdfunding campaign to print and display the posters on subway cars. After they raised nearly $3,000in donations from more than five US states, Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) officials agreed to post them.

The effort has had a ripple effect. Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for BART, says the success of the project inspired the transit company to undertake its own poster campaign for inclusivity, with the theme of “the Bay Area rides together.”

Taylor Huckaby, the communications officer for BART, says his office has been inundated with positive feedback about how the campaign has changed perspectives and made riders feel more included. “The subway is a microcosm of people from different backgrounds,” Mr. Huckaby says. “It’s important that we get out of our bubble and understand that at the end of the day we’re all working towards the same things.”

On a national scale, the posters are timely. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented more than 1,000 anti-Muslim incidents across the country in the months since the presidential election.

Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, says the city’s initiative is a step in the right direction. “The Boston Muslim community is feeling what the rest of the nation is feeling: a lot of uncertainty and a sense of insecurity,” he says. 

Ms. Sharif emphasizes that the advice the posters offer is not limited to harassment of Muslims. “While the poster depicts someone in a hijab,” says Sharif, “this principle applies to all harassment incidents.”

Boston graduate student Rebecca Lippman, waiting for a bus on Huntington Avenue, says she finds the poster informational. “I’m used to not knowing what to do when someone is being attacked and this image clarifies what the right course of action is,” she says. 

City officials say they hope that this new campaign will lead to expanded awareness and compassion. 

“These posters are one tool we have to send the message that all are welcome in Boston,” said Mayor Martin Walsh in a statement.

“Education is key to fighting intolerance, and these posters share a simple strategy for engaging with those around you.”

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