By Allan Turner, June 2, 2015
Seeking to defuse anti-Muslim anger in the wake of January’s deadly attack on the staff of a French satirical magazine, a national Islamic group has erected billboards beside some of Houston’s busiest roadways to invite motorists to call a toll-free number for information about the Prophet Muhammad and his teachings.
The billboard postings on U.S. 59 North, Loop 610 North and Westheimer Road mark the second time New York-based Islamic Circle of North America has targeted the city with its informational campaign. Billboard messages also were posted in eight other U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles. More than 1 million local motorists are expected to see the three 14-by-48-foot Houston signs.
“In the fall of last year, we had a totally different theme planned for our 2015 campaign. We were looking at Islamic faith and service,” said Islamic Circle President Naeem Baig. “After the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, after those journalists were killed, the whole debate about freedom of expression and religion came back to us. We thought that the Muslim voice was missing from that debate.”
Twelve of the French publication’s employees were killed on Jan. 7 when two gunmen, shouting “God is great” and “the prophet is revenged” in Arabic, opened fire at Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office. The slayings led to mass demonstrations in support of the magazine, which had angered some Muslims by printing a cartoon of Muhammad, in Paris and elsewhere. French President Francois Hollande called attack “extreme barbarity.”
Baig said his organization, whose Houston chapter operates a women’s shelter and food pantries, supports freedom of speech, but believes religions and religious figures should be accorded respect. Moral – not legal – considerations should protect the sacred from blasphemy.
The billboards’ messages, though, are generic invitations to learn more about Islam through a website and the toll-free telephone line.
“Who is Muhammad. Got Questions, Get Answers!” reads one, directing motorists to call 877-Why-Islam. “Muhammad Believed In Peace, Social Justice, Women’s Rights,” reads another.
Baig said his organization believes roadside signs are a sure way to address mainstream America. By accessing the toll-free number, callers can gain information and free copies of the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
Musfafa White, a board member of the organization’s Houston chapter, said the group first posted billboards here about seven years ago.
“It’s the fourth-largest city in America,” he said, adding that no specific issues led the group to target Houston with its messages. “We’ve had a huge response,” he said, noting that about 50 inquiries have been received since the signs were posted in early May.
Baig said the number of negative calls received from Houston was not available, but noted that typically 10 percent of calls are hateful. The most common questions received, he said, are “Why can’t we draw the prophet?,” “What about his marriages?,” and “Why did he fight so many wars?” Most callers request a copy of the Quran.
Longtime presence here
The Islamic group was formed in the early 1968, focusing its efforts on education and personal development of its members, many of whom were of South Asian descent. Nine years later, the group redirected its efforts to “establishing a place for Islam in America.”
White said the group has had a Houston presence since the 1970s. In recent years, he said, it has become active in offering social services. It operates a northside women’s shelter and food pantries in the north and southwest parts of the city. Additionally, White said, it provides assistance to the needy on a case-by-case basis.
The national organization occasionally has drawn criticism for its activities.
In January 2011, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, posted a Web “backgrounder” asserting that several speakers at the Islamic group’s 2010 convention portrayed Jews as “having undue influence on the U.S. government and linking Judaism to theft and oppression.” Further, the post said, convention speakers called for the eradication of Israel and accused the U.S. government of “waging war against Muslims at home and abroad.”
The Anti-Defamation League post also charged that five Muslim-American students from Virginia sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Pakistani court in 2010 for criminal conspiracy and funding a banned terrorist organization had ties to Islamic Circle organizations.
Baig said his organization attempted to arrange a meeting with Anti-Defamation League critics to discuss the Jewish organization’s concerns. “Initially, they agreed but afterward they decided not to meet,” he said. “If someone is not willing to come to the table – even if you disagree 100 percent – how are you going to understand his point of view?”
Jewish group responds
Houston ADL Executive Director Martin Cominsky said that the group’s 2011 Web posting has not been updated, and he is not certain it now portrays the Islamic group accurately. But, he added, “They have had a history of speakers at their conferences in which the rhetoric hasn’t been responsible. We’re not calling them a ‘hate group,’ but if you give information about your faith, you shouldn’t be unfair to others.”
Article Courtesy: Houston Chronicle