Billboards for Islam

If you're driving north on I-45 near Little York, you can't miss the billboard: "Islam. Got Questions? Get Answers." Underneath there's a phone number to call. Usually billboards advertise a product, but the creators of this billboard say it's all about building understanding. From the KUHF NewsLab, Melissa Galvez has the story.
"Thanks for calling the Islamic information line…."

Let's say you're up in the middle of the night, and are suddenly struck by these questions: Why do Muslim women wear veils? What does "Happy Eid" mean? Does Islam really condone terrorism?

"Believe it or not, there will be somebody who will answer the call!"

That's Samid Al Khatib, director of Gain Peace Houston, a project sponsored by the Islamic Circle of North America. Two weeks ago, Gain Peace put up its first billboard in Houston with a hotline for questions or literature related to Islam. It's staffed 24/7 by Muslim volunteers across the country. Al Khatib says the program is not aimed at converting people.

"We don't measure success based upon the number of people who come to Islam, or convert to Islam, that's not the purposes of the billboards. The program was designed to reach out to people and give them a friendly venue to ask questions relative to Islam."

So far, Al Khatib says they've gotten a handful of calls from the Houston region. But a similar billboard in Chicago received over 11,000 calls in one year. He says that Gain Peace could mean the peace of Islam; or it could just mean the peace of mind that comes from having a nagging question answered.

"We just want to be able to convey the message, give people the peace of mind if you will, that hey, the person living next to you is not conspiring against you, we have no deceptive plans, we just want to live in harmony with ya, we want to reach out to ya."


(telephone rings) "Gain Peace, this is Haroon."

Haroon Malik is a practicing Muslim who volunteered with Gain Peace after seeing the billboard in Chicago. He says he sometimes gets 20 calls a day.

"We have people calling from all different types, atheists sometimes…mostly Christians, so a lot of times the questions are regarding Jesus Christ. Sometimes we get hate calls as well, people say, ‘Islam says that this is a religion of peace, so how come Muslims are creating all types of mischief all over the world?' But most of the time it's people who are really sincere."

All volunteers go through training in the Qu'ran and comparative religion before they start taking calls. They represent a Sunni point of view, but diverse schools of thought within that. When people call asking, "What is Islam?" Malik begins by trying to find common ground.

"We all believe in God. That's something I start with, ‘Ok, do you believe in God?', and they say, ‘Yes we do.' Most of the time that's the caserdquo;

Jill Carroll is an adjunct associate professor of religion at Rice University. She says that many religious faiths have used billboards, but that this one may be different.

"Islam is in a very special situation right now, where there is tons of misinformation and horrible stereotypes out in the general public about them. And they very much need to address these types of issues from a purely informational standpoint."

From the KUHF NewsLab, I'm Melissa Galvez.



Produced with assistance from Maleeha Kamal.