Five excellent Islamic campaigns stand out for their efforts in turning negative attitudes around. By Laila Achmad.
Occurrences of the relatively new term ‘Islamophobia’ are on the rise, fuelled by misunderstanding, conjecture and generalisations. Thankfully, there are some successful organisations that challenge stereotypes using a clever mix of education, humour, compassion and media savvy.
Inspired by Muhammad – Exploring Islam Foundation
Exploring Islam Foundation was established in 2009 by a board of young British Muslim professionals from diverse backgrounds who all felt deeply concerned about unfavourable, media-shaped views of Islam. The foundation creates high profile media campaigns aiming to dispel such misconceptions.
One of these, the Inspired by Muhammad campaign, was designed to improve the public’s understanding of Islam and Muslims. Eye-catching, well-designed posters were displayed at bus stops, tube stations and even on London’s iconic taxis depicting British Muslims who share the same values as Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), including women’s rights, social justice and the environment. To complement the adverts, a fun and informative website was launched to explain Islam’s ethical principles and Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) values.
In the first two weeks after it was launched in June 2010, the Inspired by Muhammad website received over 200,000 hits from over 160 countries.
It also received coverage in hundreds of media outlets, including the BBC, Al Jazeera and Voice of America. ‘We were inundated with emails,’ reflects Remona Aly, EIF’s Campaign Director. ‘Muslim individuals contacted us saying how proud they felt of their faith and of the contributions Muslims are making to their society.’
But the journey has not always been smooth sailing. There were numerous voices on blogs and websites that mocked the campaign and claimed it was false and misleading. The critical views didn’t break the campaign’s spirit, though. ‘[We] placed links to these on the Inspired by Muhammad website, to show that, while nearly all the media coverage was positive, the campaign still ruffled some feathers.’
According to Remona, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was chosen to be the centrepiece of their first high profile media campaign because as a powerful role model, his legacy continues to inspire people 14 centuries after he lived. ‘He is someone who has universal appeal: he was committed to justice—protecting the poor and vulnerable—and upholding the rights of women. Muhammad caused a revolution; transformed an entire society in the space of 23 years,’ Remona explains. ‘We felt it was vital for people to know him and to know how he still inspires Muslims to strive for ethical values.’
Missing Pages – Exploring Islam Foundation
After the success of Inspired by Muhammad, EIF embarked on another campaign. ‘Geo-politics have mostly overshadowed the discussion on the Jewish-Muslim relationship,’ asserts Remona, explaining the need to remind people of the commonalities between these two great faith traditions, and the extraordinary stories of coexistence that they share.
Hence, the Missing Pages campaign was born on January 24th, 2011. Essentially, it ‘highlights the untold stories of solidarity and compassion between Muslims and Jews’—stories that are largely unknown or ‘missing’ from our hearts and minds. The campaign hosted American-Jewish photographer Norman H Gershman as he toured universities in the United Kingdom to talk about his photography book, Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II. EIF also supported an exhibition and documentary screening based on the stories behind his photographs.
As part of a six-year project, Norman travelled to Albania to photograph Muslim families who had rescued and sheltered Jews in World War Two in order to fulfil their Besa. A long-standing code of honour in that country, Besa instructs Albanians to protect others—even total strangers—from danger, at all costs. ‘We had heard of Norman’s work and his odyssey to Albania to document the accounts of Muslims saving Jews from the Nazis,’ recalls Remona. EIF met with Norman, and he gladly agreed to collaborate and bring his extraordinary story to the UK.
Missing Pages also voiced unity with Holocaust Memorial Day, which takes place in the UK every January 27th. They complemented the day of remembrance with their theme of ‘Untold Stories’. ‘Denying the Holocaust undermines the principles of Islam,’ states Remona. ‘Through this campaign we hope to voice our solidarity with the aims and objectives of Holocaust Memorial Day.’
The response was more than welcoming. ‘We had a great amount of encouragement and support from leading members of the Jewish and Muslims communities, and it was also praised by many members of interfaith groups.’ In the UK universities tour, Islamic and Jewish student societies came together in solidarity to co-host each campaign event. ‘We wanted to show how Islam promotes diversity and co-existence and has no tolerance of anti-Semitism.’
After 9/11 and the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a radical Muslim, a wave of social polarisation hit the Netherlands. The anti-Islam, anti-immigration campaign of Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing Party for Freedom, fuelled even more feelings of distrust against Muslims. As a result, the disconnection between Muslims and non-Muslims widened.
During the parliamentary election campaigns in 2010, the Party for Freedom yet again painted pictures of a divided society consisting of a Dutch camp and a Muslim camp. Al Nisa (‘The Women’ in Arabic), an independent organisation run since 1982 for and by Muslimahs in the Netherlands, felt that a large group in society was forgotten—that of Muslims in the Netherlands who were raised and who live in the country. Board member Khadija van der Straaten tells Aquila Asia, ‘They consider themselves both Muslims and Dutch. We are all equal members of society.’ Al Nisa believes that Muslim women in particular were overlooked in the entire social debate.
‘There are many fabulous, ambitious, educated and diverse Muslimahs in the Netherlands and they needed to be seen,’ Khadija adds.
Al Nisa felt a change was needed. They came up with the idea of a poster campaign with catchy phrases to reflect both the strength and diversity of Muslimahs, and show that they were as Dutch as any other. ‘We used quotes from Wilders and gave them a humorous twist, just to show how ridiculous they are,’ explains Khadija. The posters, especially one showing a Muslimah in a headscarf taking a bite at the traditional Dutch raw herring, turned out to be a huge success.
The media quickly picked up on the campaign. The posters received substantial coverage online and were featured in almost every major newspaper in the country. Muslims and non-Muslims alike sent supportive emails and ordered the posters. Schoolteachers, entrepreneurs, social organisations, politicians, museums and many others said that the positive message behind the campaign was what they had been missing.
This resulted in one of the Netherlands’ most famous television hosts inviting Al Nisa members to be interviewed on his show. After the interview, a traditional herring cart was rolled in and the ladies were invited to share a raw herring with the leader of a political party. ‘He was very taken by [them], and was clearly surprised to meet such educated and outspoken ladies,’ Khadija recalls. In the nationally-televised closing debate the night before the elections, he said that eating herring with Muslimahs had been the highlight of his election campaign.
As 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of the Al Nisa organisation, a follow-up campaign combined with an in-depth conference is in the works. ‘We will continue our efforts to empower Muslimahs in the Netherlands, while respecting the many different views on Islam within this group,’ Khadija says confidently.
In 2008, GainPeace, an outreach initiative of the Islamic Circle of North America (www.icna.org), launched a unique campaign in Chicago. They displayed advertisements about Islam on public buses and trains. The campaign was designed to deliver the message of Islam to a maximum number of people, using hundreds of buses and train cars to promote positive messages about Islam. Giant ads on both the exterior and interior were displayed, with the GainPeace phone number on them to support those who were interested or curious about Islam.
The response to the campaign was larger than expected. Muslims were inspired to see the image of Islam being portrayed positively to the masses, while non-Muslim responses were equally positive. The media took notice of the campaign and covered it widely in their news segments. But the most rewarding response was the number of inquiries about Islam—since 2008, GainPeace has received 25,000 phone calls on its toll-free hotline.
‘Our goal of arousing the interest of non-Muslims into Islam was achieved,’ beams Dr Sabeel Ahmed, director of GainPeace. ‘We literally received thousands of calls from people asking questions about Islam and requesting to read the Qur’an.’
There were some pre-campaign concerns that public advertisements on Islam could stir controversy. And some resistance did occur when Pamela Geller, an extreme right-wing political commentator notorious for her anti-Islam views, created a rival version of their ad campaign. GainPeace wisely chose not to dignify her negative provocation with a response. They continued the campaign feeling secure in the fact that Islam’s message is peaceful, and when presented purely, is relevant across all cultures. ‘It will resonate with a sincere seeker of truth,’ asserts Dr Ahmed.
My Faith My Voice
A grassroots effort to provide a channel for American Muslims to voice their opinions and share their stories with the world, My Faith My Voice presents personal videos about Islam and America.
A group of American Muslims conceived and launched the project during Ramadan last year. Through discussions over their communal iftar (fast-breaking meal) regarding the rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiment, particularly in the wake of the controversy surrounding the Islamic Park51 Community Center in Manhattan, they came to a realisation. The American public needed to see the ordinary, everyday faces of Islam in America—people who, in most respects, were just like them.
They immediately reached out to their community. Within a matter of days, they had produced 30- and 60-second video clips, created a website and started a YouTube channel to host video submissions from across the country. Their campaign was officially launched at the National Press Club in Washington on September 29th last year. Overwhelmingly positive coverage from major media outlets followed, resulting in an outpouring of support. Communities ranging from colleges to churches have invited them to speak about their initiative.
To date, My Faith My Voice has received over 250 videos from across the country, showing individual American Muslims speaking about what their religion means to them and what they love about America. The initiative continues to welcome more participation. ‘Specifically, we are looking for videos that are honest and share something about themselves, such as a perspective or a story,’ explains Rabiah Ahmed of My Faith My Voice.
‘We know from our research and personal experiences that relating to someone on a personal level is one of the most effective ways to challenge stereotypes and build understanding.’ .
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Aquila Style magazine