The New York Subway Ad Campaign – What’s the Big Deal?
One of the most basic of human rights is that of religious liberty, for religion is perhaps the most comprehensive of all human activities.
Leonard Swidler, in “Human Rights and Religious Liberty: From the Past to the Future”
Muslims worldwide constitute one of the world’s largest religious communities and roughly 18% of the world’s population. The global diversity of Muslims is clearly evident in the American Muslim community, arguably the most diverse group of Muslims anywhere in the world, comprising virtually every race and ethnicity.
In the wake of September 11, 2001 this community of over 7 million American Muslims has been under the glare of media publicity, often accompanied by less than accurate portrayals of their religion. A growing number of Muslims in America is convinced that misinformation about Islam lies at the root of religious hostility and unfounded fears of a clash of civilizations. With media campaigns and grassroots based outreach programs, the community appears determined to challenge popular stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam. Not only are American Muslims among the most educated and successful Muslim communities in the world, they are also increasingly aware of their manifest destiny as the bridge between Islam and the West.
In this context, the New York Chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and its 877-WHY-ISLAM project have launched an information campaign comprising of one thousand posters displayed in New York City’s subway from September 15th to October 15th, 2008 – timed to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, when over a billion Muslims observe fasting worldwide, many questions arise about Islam. The information campaign is a response to the ever-growing desire from the general public for correct and uncensored information about Islam and Muslims. As one local resident put it “I want these guys to tell me what their religion is and what they stand for. I want to make my informed decision after knowing every possible aspect.” The campaign hopes to promote much needed dialogue between peoples of different faiths.
Response from NY residents has been mixed. Many welcome the ads and see them as an opportunity to explore and obtain information, whereas others find them audacious and running counter to American culture.
Unfortunately, the events of September 11, 2001 have taken a heavy toll on the great American values of tolerance and mutual respect. In the minds of many, the juxtaposition of any symbol of Islam, with the events of 9/11 is common. Christine Lacombe, 32, said: “Having lived in New York though 9/11, to see anything Islamic, I mean I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t scare me.” The objective of the ad campaign is to address precisely such sentiments through information and dialogue.
Naeem Baig, Secretary General of ICNA said “If someone has strong sentiments about Islam then they must have questions about the faith as well, and its all the more reason for them to obtain more information.” It is hoped the ads will counter negative stereotypes about Islam by calling on people to ask questions about the religion and provide access to a toll free hotline and website to obtain answers to those questions
Republican politician Pete King has been one of the most high-profile critics of the campaign and his criticism was leveled mainly at Imam Siraj Wahaj, rather than the campaign itself. Imam Siraj is a New York Imam and respected community leader, particularly well known for his dedication to social service programs such as anti-drug patrols. Imam Siraj was also the first person invited to give an Islamic invocation in the United States Congress. Pete King’s call for having the adverts banned reflects the extent to which narrow politics has adversely affected religious freedom and interfaith understanding. “New Yorkers will be commemorating the 7th anniversary of the Sept 11 bombings. It is offensive to their families and it is offensive to the members that were killed that day”, King said. The fact that the ads would actually contribute to greater public awareness of a religion that claims one-fifth of humanity among its adherents is, for some reason, lost on King.
Responding to Mr. King’s rant, Azeem Khan, spokesperson for the Islamic circle of North America, reminded viewers in a CNN interview, that Muslims were amongst those killed during the attacks. “Even if they did overlap with Sept 11th, that is no excuse to spread hatred, fear and suspicion towards American Muslims. It is ironic that one of the founders of the WHY ISLAM project died in the terror attacks on that day. Mr King’s comments are an insult to him, his family and the intelligence of all New Yorkers who can decide for themselves.”
Fortunately, not all New Yorkers agree with Mr. King’s niggardly approach. One person observed that people have a right to know, “Please stop this censorship Mr. King, we proud Americans deserve to know uncensored information. Do not take this opportunity away from us.” Another person commented, “What’s the big deal, how else are we going to learn about each other and grow as a country. That’s what the US is all about.”
While Islam is often seen as a rather exotic or strange way of life, it has, in fact remarkable similarities in line with the best of American and western ethos.
Karen Armstrong, a best-selling religion writer and former nun, further explains the importance of peace in Islam:
“…Islam is a religion of peace. Like all the great world traditions, it recoils in horror from the violence of the world and struggles through to a position of peace. You can see that in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The word “Islam” is related etymologically to the word “Salaam ” — peace.”
Mr Khan explained, “The reality is Muslims are a part of the American fabric. New Yorkers should realize we’re in the fight against terrorism together.”
A California resident explained her thoughts on the campaign. “Form what I think, we really don’t know what true Islam, or its preachings, are. We and the media always judge Islam by some of its followers. Well, if the world would start judging Christianity on the basis of some rogue Christians, that would not be right…would it? Thus, we should give a chance to all Americans to know what really Islam preaches and what its core principles are. I think that the subway adverts are really a good idea. We should give the Muslims a chance to clear misconceptions about Islam.”
Ignorance is recognized as a major source of religious hatred and violence in this age. By eliminating ignorance, we can help create a more tolerant environment that engenders peaceful co-existence. The subway ad information campaign aims to reach out to New York residents by promoting understanding through information, and working to bridge the gap between Islam and America. It is hoped that it will be appreciated in this light.