The New York Times
February 23, 2012
By David Lepeska
As anti-Muslim rhetoric rises locally and nationally — some of it fueled by the presidential campaign — a group of Chicago-area Muslims is battling back, using tactics including a television ad campaign and public forums against bigotry.
Gain Peace, an Islamic outreach organization based in Chicago, spent $40,000 in December to counter negative portrayals and produce two television ads intended to promote Islam as a just faith. The spots, which will run through March in the Chicago area on Fox, CNN and TNT, depict friendly Muslim students and professionals and display a phone number and a Web site for more information.
“This is an election year and in the Republican primaries and elsewhere, generally we have seen more discrimination, hate and misunderstanding about Muslims,” said Sabeel Ahmed, director of Gain Peace. “We wanted to take it up a notch.”
During a political engagement workshop for immigrants on the near West Side early this month, Ahmed Rehab, the head of a Muslim advocacy group, urged attendees to fight attacks on Islam with accurate information about the Muslim faith.
“What’s worse than ignorance is misinformation, and that’s what I find Islamophobia normally falls under: It’s a process of miseducation,” said Mr. Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “But what can be done, can be undone.”
That un-do list has been growing. Last November, Pat Brady, the Illinois Republican Party chairman, urged the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the state’s leading immigrant support group, to expel CAIR-Chicago from its list of affiliated organizations. He cited “CAIR’s reported ties to Hamas terrorist supporters, its anti-Israel organizing and its tolerance for anti-Semitic discourse.”
The coalition declined and called Mr. Brady’s request “a descent into anti-Muslim hysteria.”
In the presidential race, both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have depicted Islamic Shariah law as a potential threat to United States sovereignty. One of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisers, Walid Phares, regularly warns that Muslims aim to take over American institutions and impose Shariah, a legal code based mainly on the Koran that can involve punishments like cutting off the hands of a thief.
Republican-sponsored bills in more than 20 states, including Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri, would ban courts from recognizing foreign laws, legislative shorthand for Shariah. Yet no United States Muslim organization is calling for the institution of Shariah.
Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the rhetoric might become more heated during the coming primary battles in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin. “In reaching out to your base, there’s a tendency to throw red meat out there,” he said.
The effect of these verbal attacks may go beyond the political. Hate crimes against Muslims increased nearly 50 percent in the United States in 2010, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation report released in November. That month, officials at O’Hare Airport fired a baggage handler who was accused of writing “Burn Islam” and “Filthy Muslim” on his Facebook page.
Officials from CAIR-Chicago plan to address anti-Muslim attacks from far right groups at their annual banquet next month. Leaders of the Nation of Islam are expected to respond to Muslim discrimination during the group’s convention at the United Center this weekend.
Gain Peace, which produced the television ads, is part of the Islamic Circle of North America, an Islamic education organization based in Queens, N.Y., accused by conservative groups of extolling terrorism.
“These TV ads are out there to fool people into thinking that Muslims are just like us,” said Constance Gavras, head of a Chicago-area chapter of Act! For America, a grass-roots anti-jihadist organization.
Mr. Ahmed, of Gain Peace, dismissed any connection between Islamic Circle and terrorism. “There is always a link people try to make,” he said. “But there is no proof.”
Mr. Redfield, of the University of Illinois at Springfield, said he thought the Muslim groups were smart to combat anti-Muslim rhetoric. “In politics, if you don’t define yourself someone else will,” he said. “They have to be proactive in terms of trying to neutralize ignorance and willful manipulation of negative opinion.”
Islamic Circle hopes to distribute the television ads nationwide.