By Bethany Rodgers, Orlando Sentinel
Local Muslim-Americans have turned to towering billboards to try to dispel what they see as widespread misconceptions about their faith and culture.
A new Interstate 4 signage campaign, launched by a Longwood group in partnership with a national organization, aims to combat myths about Islam by spreading messages of peace and inviting questions from those unfamiliar with its precepts.
“Muhammad always taught love, not hate; peace, not violence,” one message states.
Atif Fareed, chairman of the American Muslim Community Centers of Longwood, said his group sorted through about 30 messages and chose six that captured what members wanted to express to Orlando-area drivers.
“The message is that Muslim-Americans are your neighbors. They’re your doctors. They work in the community. They pay taxes. They are part and parcel of American society,” Fareed said.
The sign campaign has been in the works for some time and was not in response to the terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris earlier this month. Mosques and Muslim-Americans have become targets of vandalism, threats and hateful messages in the wake of the attacks.
Fareed said some local Muslim-Americans have experienced some ugly backlash. But he says anti-Muslim sentiment isn’t widespread in the Orlando community.
“That’s the 1 percent of ugliness that’s everywhere in the world,” he said, adding that local Muslims have also “had an incredible amount of good people reach out to us.”
During the next month, drivers will see eight billboards in the Orlando area and two near Daytona Beach as part of the outreach by AMCC and the Islamic Circle of North America. Similar signage campaigns have come to major cities throughout the U.S., including Boston, New York City, Denver, Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.
The billboards also went up in the Orlando area last year, Fareed said.
The signs are meant to provoke thought and include a toll-free number and address to a website, whyislam.org, where people can discover more information about Islam.
When the billboard campaign came to town last year, the signage generated about 800 calls each week they were up, Fareed said.
The AMCC is paying for the billboards with a budget of about $10,000 raised to spread positive messages about American Muslims.
Some of the billboards going up around Orlando pose questions. Others deliver short statements about the faith.
“Muhammad believed in peace, social justice, women’s rights,” one states.
Jim Coffin, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, said the interplay between gender and religion is debated across a variety of faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Critics of a faith’s practices should recognize that they’re coming with an outsider’s perspective, he added.
“They see certain differences from the way they like to have things done,” Coffin said. “So they make a blanket condemnation without realizing that it may not be viewed the same way by the people who are involved in that group.”
It’s always important to seek more information about a religion rather than relying on secondhand knowledge or rumor to shape opinions, Coffin said.
As he waited at a bus stop near a billboard on Orange Blossom Trail, Daryl Moore said the sign didn’t inspire him to call the hotline or visit the website. But he does recognize that American Muslims deal with stereotyping.
Moore, 44, of Orlando said local Muslims combat some of these negative misconceptions by reaching out and helping the needy. For instance, a local Islamic community center serves meals to the homeless, he said.
“They do good things for the community,” added Moore’s wife, Deborah Flores, 47.
Article Courtesy: Orlando Sentinel