The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), as reported by The Express Tribune on September 1, 2015, initiated a nationwide campaign to ‘create awareness about the religion (Islam)’ by displaying billboards that, as ICNA spokesman Nadeem Baig stated, hopes to,“raise awareness about the faith and to dispel myths about the Muslim Americans”.
The billboards contain messages such as how ProphetMuhammad (PBUH) supports ‘peace, social justice and women’s rights’.
Yahoo News also covered ICNA’s crusade and the comments section got flooded by anti-Muslim vitriol abounds. Such comments demonstrate that Islam has a poor image in America, thanks to the Taliban, Boko Haram, al Shabab, Daesh and Saudi Arabia. The ‘lone wolf’ attacks on the army recruiting centre in Tennessee further add fuel to the fire. And ICNA wishes to counter just that.
So how effective are their billboards? Will they foster greater understanding of Islam? Or will they be seen as propaganda?
Americans, like most people, dislike proselytising. Unfortunately, despite good intent, ICNA misfired. Platitudes from Muslims are not what the Americans desire. Americans want assurance concerning free speech and tolerance towards not just the ‘people of the Book’ (Christians and Jews), but also homosexuals, atheists, apostates, Buddhists, Hindus, etcetera.
The First Amendment states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Non-Muslims in America want Muslims to respect values that neither favour nor prohibit the exercise of religion. Too often instead, they see acts of religious chauvinism that creates a negative impression. For example, the Council of Islamic American Relations (CAIR) recently filed a discrimination lawsuit, as reported this September by CBS News, against an airline when a Muslim woman, Tahera Ahmad, did not receive special accommodation.
Prominent Muslims such as Mehdi Hasan refuse to unconditionally support free speech by saying,
“None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech.”
Islamic academics, such as Rutgers professor Deepa Kumar, tweeted:
— Deepa Kumar (@ProfessorKumar) March 26, 2015
When such statements are passed, Americans justifiably wonder why mainstream Muslims harbour such bigotry and claim victimhood, while they make excuses for extreme views such as apostasy, blasphemy laws and a culture responsible for the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
Moreover, when bloggers in Bangladesh are being murdered or considering the sadistic treatment of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, Americans have seen what happens to those that try to reform or critique Islam, whether it’s Muslims or former Muslims. These reformers risk their lives or are singled out (by Deepa Kumar and her ilk) as ‘house Muslims’ and ‘native informants’.
Just ask some of the prominent reformers of today and tomorrow, Qanta Ahmed, M Zuhdi Jasser, Irshad Manji, Maajid Nawaz, and Asra Nomani, whose messages for promoting tolerance are embraced by mainstream America. Barack Obama also understands and promotes American values when he said,
“We, therefore, believe in… the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear.”
“If others speak in dispraise of me, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart.”
When groups such as ICNA and CAIR have made such statements, without any ‘buts’, the perception of Muslims will ameliorate. As is, ICNA’s abstract terms of ‘peace’ may be a start, but without a clear message, their billboards come off as advertisements.