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Muslim Americans Launch PR Campaign - 2004-05-12

Muslims and non-Muslims may have more in common than you think. That's the theme of an ad campaign sponsored by the Council on American Islamic Relations. One of the ads that's appeared in California newspapers appeals to Christians by explaining the role of Jesus in the Islamic tradition, but as Alexandra Cohen reports, it's received mixed reviews from religious leaders.

The nationwide campaign called "Muslims in America" shows Muslims participating in many facets of American life. The Council on American Islamic Relations began the outreach effort last year, in response to increasing public misinformation about Islam and hostility toward Muslims. The campaign has included billboard signs, print ads and radio announcements like this one, which aired earlier this year, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"This is the Adan, or holy call to prayer. This call also marks the time for breaking the fast for millions of Muslims in the United States and over one billion Muslims worldwide who are currently observing the holy month of Ramadan..."

Across the country, local chapters of CAIR are placing the ads on local radio stations and in community newspapers and some are coming up with ads of their own. California is home to more than one million Muslims and since September 11, many have felt the need to present themselves in a positive light to clear up misunderstandings about their community. Sabiha Khan is communications director for the southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

"Some people are able to interact with a Muslim school teacher or a Muslim doctor, but there are still a lot of Americans who are not able to," she said. "What we want to do is make it comfortable for people to ask us questions and what better way to do that is to outreach first."

Unlike the Council's national campaign, which features portraits with the caption, "I'm an American and I'm a Muslim," the full-page ad from the southern California chapter is all about religion. At the top is a picture of the old city of Jerusalem with a large cross in the foreground, underneath there is a passage from the Koran praising two of the central figures in Christianity (Jesus and Mary). Ms. Khan said that Christians and Muslims share many of the same beliefs about who Jesus was.

"We believe that he's one of the prophets and we believe that he is the son of Mary, born of a virgin," she added. "He was brought down on earth to spread the good word from God, he did perform miracles by the leave of God, he will come back one day to establish justice on earth."

The ad about Jesus has appeared in community newspapers throughout California to mixed reviews. Many Muslims have praised it for educating the public about their beliefs. Father Alexi Smith of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles said that the information in the ad may come as a pleasant surprise to many Christians. "They may be somewhat surprised to know that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, that there's reference to Mary in the Koran, that some of the same values certainly that Jesus taught, Muslims also teach, some people are unfortunately very unaware of what the Muslim faith truly teaches," he said.

The ad does not mention some important differences between Muslim and Christian traditions and teachings, such as the fact that although Muslims consider Jesus a prophet, they do not consider him to be the Son of God. Rabbi Abraham Cooper sees a problem with that. The director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which works for tolerance and understanding, said that to effectively promote peace in today's world, religious groups need to acknowledge their differences as well as their similarities.

"Franky I think that the ad is very clever, but I think if you're talking about long term relationships, it's important to put what brings us together and what divides us right on the table," he argued. "To make believe those issues don't exist doesn't really address the underlying issues."

Jennifer Floto teaches public relations at the University of Southern California. She said that the ad was well timed, appearing as it did around the same time as the controversial film "The Passion of the Christ" and the Easter holiday. Professor Floto says it may seem odd to some that religious groups are hiring public relations firms and running advertising campaigns, But in this day and age, she believes it's necessary. ?With the problems the Catholic Church has encountered over the past decade, I think that counseling religious organizations has become a new specialty in public relations,? she added.

Professor Floto says public relations is all about making sure that the right facts reach the right audience, whether you're a corporation, a non-profit organization or even a religious group.

One fact that the Council on American Islamic Relations wants to get out to a wide audience is its annual survey of discrimination complaints. This month, it released the results for 2003. The data showed a sharp increase in the number of cases of harassment of Muslims. According to CAIR's executive director, Hussam Alyoush, without their outreach campaign, those numbers might have been even higher. ?We would be sitting here talking about thousands of cases, we would be talking about a lot of murder victims, we would have been talking about a lot of cases of vandalism,? he said.

In future months, the southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations plans to run ads that highlight the Islamic view of other religious figures such as Abraham and Moses in an attempt to reach out to Jews as well as Christians. The nation-wide Islam in America campaign plans to release two new ads this summer.