It's certainly not unusual to spot billboards in Silicon Valley urging you to step into Fry's Electronics, shop at the Great Mall or buy a new Halloween costume.
But for the first time, billboards asking "Why Islam?" have sprouted up in San Jose, Santa Clara and Concord, along with a blitz of posters on buses and bus stops — a campaign to educate people about the religion and fight negative stereotypes. The ads offer free Korans and a toll-free number people can call to seek answers about the oft-misunderstood religion.
"The best-case scenario of this campaign would be to show the public that Muslims are hardworking, peace-loving family contributors," said Ahmed Khaleel, 30, of Santa Clara, the outreach coordinator for the Bay Area Chapter of the Islamic Community of North America, which is sponsoring the "Why Islam" project. "Since Sept. 11, Islam has stood at the focus of negativism. Islam is not synonymous with terrorism."
The billboard campaign began in New York almost a year before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Ironically, one of the campaign founders, Tariq Amanullah, died in the World Trade Center that day.
But as the nation mourns the eighth anniversary of the attacks Friday, the dual events of the tragedy and Ramadan make the timing of the billboard campaign especially poignant. Ramadan, a month of sunrise-to-sundown fasting, ends Sept. 19.
The message of the campaign is simply to show that Islam is quite similar to other religions.
"We fast during Ramadan," said Ashfaq Parkar, a volunteer with the project where the hot line is based in New Jersey. "And so do Catholics and Jews. We realized as a minority religion in this country that we need to do a better job educating others."
To that effect, one of the billboards, along Interstate Highway 880 at Brokaw Road in San Jose, says Islam follows the teachings of "Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.'' Some of the billboards are also in Spanish. (The billboards spell "Quran" with a "qu," although many Americans spell the word "Koran.")
Each year, the billboard locations change slightly and are funded by local communities. For example, billboards dot highways in Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Boston, Tampa, Fla., and earlier this year in San Francisco. Neither the local nor national chapter of the Islamic Community of North America disclosed how much the entire campaign costs, or how many free Korans have been given away other than "in the thousands each year."
But Parkar did say that each billboard costs $1,000 to $5,000. Smaller ads may run between $200 and $500 apiece. There are four large billboards along highways in San Jose and Concord, eight bus-stop ads and posters in San Jose and Santa Clara, and 35 bus ads, according to campaign organizers. The ads began Aug. 31 and will run at least four weeks. Parkar said, on average, volunteers field 1,000 monthly calls to the 1-877-WHY-ISLAM hot line, and about the same number of e-mails to WhyIslam.org. In addition, Muslim communities also host open houses during the Ramadan-timed campaign. One such event is happening Friday evening at the South Bay Islamic Center in San Jose, and another on Saturday in Santa Clara at the Muslim Community Association.
Christian Pastor Bruce Green, who commutes from the Santa Cruz area, spotted the large signs along I-880 and at Highway 101 at Tully Road in San Jose. Green has many Muslim connections, as he serves as an interfaith "bridge builder"' at his Fremont church. He correctly assumed it was timed for Ramadan — a month of fasting, but also when Muslims are obligated to teach others about their faith.
"In a sense, it seems as though the Muslims are observing what Christians have already done and are now marketing Islam in a Western manner," Green said.
Ameen Ashraf of Santa Clara, vice president of the local ICNA chapter, said after a similar ad campaign ran in San Francisco in February, hot line volunteers fielded a spike of about 8,000 calls in two months. He noticed several new faces at his Santa Clara mosque — visitors from Berkeley or San Francisco — who said they came after seeing the signs.
While most of the effects are anecdotal, organizers say success will be marked by changing even one person's negative view of Islam.
One time, Ashraf said, a caller started off with sweeping statements, assuming that all Muslims act a certain way. But that call turned into a 30-minute conversation, he said, and at the end, the caller was asking the hot line volunteer, "Hey, can you send me some literature?"
Contact Lisa Fernandez at 408-920-5002.
Muslims at the South Bay Islamic Center, 325 N. Third St., in San Jose are hosting a break the fast on Friday at 7 p.m. and a candlelight vigil to remember those killed in the attacks. On Saturday, the Muslim Community Association is hosting its annual Ramadan open house at 3003 Scott Blvd. in Santa Clara. The open house is free, but reservation is required. Contact email@example.com or call 408-727-7277, extension 402. A panel discussion begins at 5 p.m. The open house begins at 6:30 p.m.