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Islamic Advocacy Group Attempts to Counter Anti-Muslim Rhetoric - 2003-03-07

An Islamic advocacy group has launched an advertising campaign in the United States to counter what it says is a rising tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Organizers say the effort is designed to present an accurate picture of Islam.

When many Americans see Islam portrayed in news reports it is often linked to extremism and terrorism, such as the latest tape from Osama bin Laden or suicide bombings in Israel.

This negative news coverage has prompted the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations - or CAIR - to begin a year-long media campaign called "Islam in America."

The communications director for the council, Ibrahim Hooper, says he hopes the ad campaign will help reverse the negative image some Americans have of the Muslim faith. "Well that is one of the main factors that led us to do the campaign, was defining Islam," he said. "So often Islam is defined by extremists on both sides. Both on the right-wing and evangelical circles and from Muslim extremists. So we need to define that Muslim center to take it out of the hands of both of these sets of extremists and that is what we are trying to do here."

The council's executive director, Nihad Awad, is a Palestinian born in Amman, Jordan who is now a U.S. citizen.

Mr. Awad says the campaign began after the organization received tens of thousands of requests from Americans seeking information about Muslims. "Islam is becoming, more and more, an issue of interest to average Americans," said Nihad Awad. "All what they see from Muslims and Islam is the headline news and most of this news is negative news. So we would like just to share with them the real news, that we live everyday, that millions of American Muslims and millions of Muslims around the world live the teachings of this religion and never came close to violence or terrorism."

The "Islam in America" ads are running each Sunday in the New York Times newspaper and are being distributed to Muslim communities throughout America for placement in local media.

The first ad shows pictures of an African-American girl, a man of Asian descent and another man of European heritage. The headline asks "which one of us is Muslim?" The response: "We all are, we're American Muslims."

The second ad features a group of Muslim Girl Scouts from California while a third shows a woman wearing a traditional scarf (hijab) who earned a Masters degree from a prestigious university and works as a researcher for an international corporation.

Ibrahim Hooper says the campaign is designed to show that Muslims are everyday Americans. "Well we are trying to show that American Muslims are ordinary people," he said. "They are doctors, students, mothers, bus drivers, the checkout person at a grocery store might be a Muslim nowadays and that the vast majority of Muslims will live and die throughout history and never come close to an act of political violence or instability. That is the reality of the Muslim experience that we portray. That people are just going about their ordinary, their normal lives doing ordinary things like anybody else."

The council's executive director, Nihad Awad, sees the "Islam in America" ads as showing the strengths brought on by the mosaic of backgrounds and religions of people in the United States. "I have seen even during the Gulf War great solidarity with Arab Americans and Muslims," he said. "That is when America delivers. That is when the diversity and the plurality of our society proves itself, genuine, open minded and receptive to others. Even after September 11th, although there were some attacks and backlash against Muslims and Arabs in the country, we have seen a great many examples of solidarity, comfort and respect among the major sectors of society."

Mr. Awad says a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq could significantly raise tensions in America and that could have an impact on the country's estimated seven million Muslims.

Mr. Awad says, however, he hopes the ad campaign will help Americans better understand one of the fastest growing religions in the United States.