‘Get out of America’: Pro-Islam Billboards in Dallas a Reaction to Political Climate
By Naomi Martin
Driving down Dallas highways lately, you may have noticed an unusual billboard tucked among the more expected ones advertising Christian churches.
“ISLAM = Racial Equality,” read the 12 billboards that have popped up around Dallas and Fort Worth. They provide a hotline phone number and website for “Why Islam?”
The billboards were funded by the Dallas chapter of Islamic Circle of North America, using local mosque donations. The group has run these campaigns nationwide for years, but this one, which started Oct. 24, has stood out.
It has prompted more hate calls than the group has received in other cities.
“We need to do more of these [campaigns] in Dallas, given the amount of hatred we got this time,” said Imam Jawad Ahmed, who manages the hotline call center in New Jersey. “They would just curse the Muslims in general and say things like racial slurs, go back to your country, or get out of America, things like that.”
The group’s local spokesman, Furqan Ansari, of Irving, said the group decided to buy the billboards in an effort to combat what he sees as widespread misinformation about Islam that coincided with the rise of President-elect Donald Trump, and to show solidarity with people of color.
“We wanted to show DFW residents the things said in the election campaign were not true,” Ansari said. The political rhetoric, he said, “made people have a lot of hatred and discrimination against Muslims.”
The response to the billboards has mirrored the division of the country.
In the five weeks that the billboards have been up, the group has received 75 phone calls. Some of those were people who wanted to yell about Islam and hang up. Another 11 people chose not to speak to a person and just left a hate-filled voicemail.
“Phone is a very good medium of expressing your hate because you can easily just say what you want and hang up,” said Ahmed. “Whereas if you face someone face-to-face you might have apprehension.”
But the majority of callers were non-Muslims who were genuinely curious about the religion, Ahmed said. A few even just wanted to say that they support Muslims during these tense, divided times.
Many asked similar questions: Does Islam really promote racial equality? What about equality between men and women?
When people ask about Islam’s view on terrorism and the Islamic State, or ISIS, the volunteers are trained to tell the callers that the religion promotes peace and does not condone any violence. The group does not view ISIS members as being Muslims, Ansari said.
‘Look, we’ve arrived’
The billboards’ message that Islam promotes racial equality is a valid one, said John Esposito, an Islamic Studies professor at Georgetown University. The Qur’an teaches that all human beings are equal, regardless of race, sex or beliefs, he said. Just like other religions, however, some adherents selectively follow certain tenets.
“We Christians talk about Jesus and turn the other cheek,” said Esposito, who founded the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. “There are a lot of Christians who don’t turn the other cheek — they’d rather slam you.”
The billboards come as the country has seen an uptick of hatred aimed at Muslims and other minorities. Since the election, at least 867 hate incidents have been reported, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. About 6 percent of those were aimed at Muslims. That continues a trend from the past few years. In 2015, FBI statistics showed a 67 percent rise in hate crimes against Muslims.
“In the last year, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam discrimination, hate speech and attacks have been at their highest level in recent history,” Esposito said.
During the campaign, Trump advocated for increasing surveillance on Muslims and making them register with the government. He also at one point supported banning Muslims from entering the US, but later dialed it back saying he would suspend immigration from regions of the world that “have a history of exporting terrorism.”
Mosques in Georgia and California have recently reported receiving anonymous letters promising that Trump would “cleanse America and make it shine again. And, he’s going to start with you Muslims. He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”
In McKinney, some residents in the Craig Ranch neighborhood reported receiving similar letters.
“Our new President Donald Trump is God’s gift to white nation,” the letter reads, according to a NBC-5 (Channel 5) story. “We need to get rid of Muslims, Indians, blacks and Jews.”
And those are just the reported incidents. There are many more that aren’t reported because they are either relatively minor verbal attacks, or the victim fears taking action will make the problem worse, said Alia Salem, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
She said her group has also received an uptick in hate calls. Recently, motorcyclists circled the office, flipping off employees and holding signs for the “Three Percenters” right-wing group.
“I’m glad this is all coming out in the open,” said Salem. “It’s like uncovering a festering wound and it still isn’t healed, but at least you can start to clean it out.”
To address Islamophobia, Salem said, Muslims need to work harder to introduce themselves to the broader community, which the billboards help to do. She pointed to a 2014 Pew Research Center study that found that 41 percent of Americans had a negative view of Muslims, which tracked closely to the 47 percent of US adults who said they didn’t know any Muslims.
Recognizing this relationship, many Muslim groups and mosques are now holding open-house events to help others better understand who they are and what they believe.
Like other minorities and newcomers to America, the Muslim community has largely tended to stay to itself in the past, said Robert Hunt, director of Global Theological Education at Southern Methodist University. The billboards, with their public proclamations, symbolize the evolution of Islam in joining the American religious mainstream.
“Billboards are an important way to make their presence known in public — look, we’ve arrived,” Hunt said. “We have something to say in public and it’s not defensive. In a way, a religious group has come of age when it puts up a billboard.”
For decades, drivers have grown accustomed to seeing billboards with Christian messages, such as “Jesus is watching you,” “Jesus is the answer,” and “It’s your choice: Heaven or Hell.”
For one campaign, celebrities were pictured in black and white with the words, “I am second,” to Jesus.
The medium of a billboard is useful, especially during these times of fractured media and liberal and conservative echo chambers. Regardless of what websites we read, we all sit in traffic together.
ICNA estimated its billboards were seen 24 million times in the past month.
“People have short attention spans — a billboard is short and punchy,” Esposito said. “You put something up there and it just grabs them. You get more attention than an op-ed in the newspaper.”
Even though the group’s goal isn’t to proselytize or convert people, Hunt said Islam, like Christianity, does urge its followers to encourage non-Muslims to join. Educational efforts often involve teaching that Islam is the true path to God, he said.
And now may be an opportune time.
“A lot of people are saying, if Christianity is Donald Trump, I don’t want to be a Christian anymore,” Hunt said. “So they’re naturally out looking.”
So far though, no one from the Dallas area has converted by calling the hotline. - Dallas News