Ad campaign rekindles September 11 phobias

A planned Islamic poster campaign to run during Ramadan on the New York subway system has caused controversy.

Azeem Khan with the Islamic Circle of North America at the computer showing a portion of one of the ads that will run in September in New York. (Joe Tabacca for The National-7/29/08) *** Local Caption ***  Ads-3.jpg
Powered by automated translation

NEW YORK // Almost seven years after the September 11 attacks, Islam remains a sticky subject, with the latest point of controversy being a planned Islamic poster campaign on the subway. The advertisements drew angry condemnation from those alleging the sponsors were linked to terrorism, but the group behind them said they were aimed at combating ignorance. The campaign will run in September to coincide with Ramadan. The New York Post tabloid newspaper ran headlines saying "Jihad Train" and "Train-ing day for jihadists".

The main sponsor behind the campaign is the Islamic Circle of North America, a non-profit outreach and social services group, whose founder, Tariq Amanullah, was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11. "He spent all his free time trying to build bridges, and this controversy is an insult to his memory," said Azeem Khan, an Islamic Circle spokesman. The posters will feature key words about Islam, such as "Head Scarf?" or "Prophet Mohammed?" with "You deserve to know" alongside the website address and a toll-free telephone number staffed by volunteers to answer questions about the religion.

"Due to the presence of much negativity and Islamophobia, the general public has the daunting task of sifting through uninformed and biased sources before they can find reliable sources," said an Islamic Circle press release. "We are providing an opportunity to anyone who has questions to have them answered by informed Muslims." Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, said the campaign was permitted under United States law. The first amendment of the US constitution guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

"If you were to advocate becoming a Muslim, I assume the first amendment would protect you," he said. Mr Bloomberg reiterated his commitment to allowing all religions freedom of expression during a private breakfast meeting late last month with Arab American community leaders at his Gracie Mansion residence, a participant said. "Bloomberg supported the right of Islamic communities to freely express themselves and said it was a free country," he said. The meeting is held yearly during Arab American Heritage Week as part of the mayor's outreach efforts.

However, Peter King, a New York Republican in the US House of Representatives, urged the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the subway, to reject the posters, noting they would run on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. "I have no problem with the ad itself, but I have a very, very real problem with those behind it," he said. He was referring to another of the campaign's backers, Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of a Brooklyn mosque and a character witness for Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 that killed six people and injured more than 1,000.

Mr Wahhaj was on a list of 170 potential co-conspirators in the case, but in the end no charges were laid against him. The cleric was also the first Muslim to lead a prayer before the House of Representatives. "People try to make the connection as if I'm endorsing some bad deeds that [were] done by Sheikh Abdel-Rahman," Mr Wahhaj told CNN late last month. He said he was a character witness based on "what we knew about him before the incident" and called him a "scholar in Islam" and "a great reciter of the Quran".

He said "not only have I never been charged with anything, not one FBI agent has ever asked me one question in relationship to that bombing". The posters will appear in about 1,000 subway cars and the MTA was paid US$48,000 (Dh176,300) for the monthlong campaign. "We've run the information hotline for about eight years now. We give out literature and copies of the Quran, and arrange visits to mosques for people who want to learn more about Islam," said Mr Khan of the Islamic Circle. "We're running the poster campaign during Ramadan because that's when people become more curious and ask questions about fasting and Islam. It becomes a point of conversation."

The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) praised Mr Bloomberg and the transit authority for supporting free speech rights. "Unfortunately, guilt by association, smears, fear-mongering and anti-Muslim bias have been used by those attempting to block this positive and educational ad campaign," said Aliya Latif, Cair's civil rights director.