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Muslims take message on the road

Muslims hope this billboard along Interstate 4 will entice the curious to visit the Web site and learn about their religion.

CARRIE PRATT | Times

Muslims hope this billboard along Interstate 4 will entice the curious to visit the Web site and learn about their religion.

SEFFNER — The billboard sits along the eastbound side of Interstate 4, just west of McIntosh Road. But unlike other signs hawking fast food joints, gas stations or amusement parks, this one poses a spiritual query:

"Purpose of Life? 877-WHY-ISLAM?..."

If you call the number you'll reach an office in Somerset, N.J. run by the Islamic Circle of North America, a Muslim advocacy group based in Jamaica, N.Y. Once on the line, callers can ask just about anything.

The signs with catchy phrases and images is part of a national campaign by the nonprofit group to promote discussion about Islam and debunk stereotypes about Muslims. For Ramadan, they wrapped Chicago city buses with WhyIslam signs and put up ads on New York City subway cars, which sparked some controversy.

Last week, 24 billboards went up in 18 cities, including Orlando, Portland, Ore., and San Antonio, Texas. Many of them were in cities that do not have large Muslim populations.

"We felt, as American Muslims, our voice was not being heard," said Naeem Baig, the group's secretary general. "We have very limited access to the media, being a nonprofit without big pockets. We felt this was the best way to reach out to the general public."

The billboard in east Hillsborough County, which went up a week before Thanksgiving, is the first of its kind in the bay area for the group.

Tampa was not among ICNA's target markets, but Bilal Farooqi, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, requested the billboard and agreed to sponsor it.

He felt the need to take action after another nonprofit last fall distributed Obsession, a controversial DVD about radical Islam. That group mailed it and placed it in 58 newspapers around the country, including the St. Petersburg Times.

Farooqi asked his friends and several adults at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area mosque in Tampa to help him raise the $1,900 needed to design the ad and rent the billboard in Seffner until the end of December.

Despite its clearly spiritual message, Farooqi says it is not about gaining converts, but about education.

"It's a billboard, and you only get three or four words to make it catchy," Farooqi said. "I couldn't think of anything more catchy than that. If we just said 'Islam is a religion of peace,' people aren't going to really be as intrigued by it."

Despite his intentions, Farooqi worries he will be stung by the very attitudes the billboard campaign is trying to dispel.

A 2007 graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Farooqi frets that future employers may one day learn of his association with the campaign, misunderstand its purpose and deny him jobs.

Still he feels the message is more important.

"We don't want everyone to just have this negative stereotype about Islam," he said. "We're just trying to do our part to get people to see that there is another side to the story."

Most of ICNA's efforts are funded by the national group and its more than 22 chapters. The national group took in more than $3.2-million in public donations in 2006, according to federal tax filings for nonprofits.

Some of the billboards can cost as much as $15,000 to rent in major cities, Baig said. The one in Seffner was a bargain at $1,900, partially because it wasn't rented.

At the group's New Jersey offices, Jawad Ahmed, leads the volunteers that take the calls generated by the billboards.

He estimates they field an average of 500 calls a month. On some months, particularly after strong advertising campaigns, more than 1,000 calls pour in, Ahmed said.

Florida ranks third behind New Jersey and New York among the states that call into the national hotline, he said. High interest from the Sunshine State might reflect ICNA's heavy marketing efforts in Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami.

The organization does not yet track calls by the cities from which they are placed. Ahmed tries to keep track informally by memorizing area codes.

Most often, callers ask about the Prophet Mohammed, the supposed oppression of Muslim women, and the basic tenants of Islam. A fair amount call to rant.

"I had one call of 90 seconds of continuous, nonstop curses, cursing God, Muslims, Islam," said Ahmed, who is an imam at a New Jersey mosque. "But I just kept silent and waited for him to stop."

After the caller finished his rant, Ahmed said he talked to the man for half an hour about Islam and agreed to send him some brochures about the faith.

So far, it's tough to tell if the locals in east Hillsborough County are among those calling the hotline.

Workers at companies along Interstate 4 in the Seffner area said they had not seen the sign. Neither had people who live in the trailers, block houses and subdivisions that are almost literally in the billboard's shadow.

Nothing against Islam, they said. They just take local roads and don't often venture onto the interstate.

Times Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Muslims take message on the road 12/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 11:23am]
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