NEW JERSEY – Facing increasing questions about Islam and Ramadan fasting, a prominent Islamic organization in North America is placing new billboards on New Jersey turnpike offering toll-free hotline that gives answers to curious Americans about the Islamic faith.
"Rather than absorb knowledge from Fox News, we invite people to come hear it from the horse’s mouth," Asim Khan, the president of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA)'s New Jersey chapter, told the New Jersey Real-Time News website on Monday, August 8.
“We invite them to ask us what our faith is about,” Khan added.
Launching the campaign on the first day of Ramadan, August 1, drivers were able to see the two 48-foot billboards on New Jersey turnpike.
The billboards tell those who are curious to know about Islam to dial (877) 949-47526 — a 24/7 toll-free hotline sponsored by ICNA.
All through Ramadan, New Jersey drivers will find two billboards; one with a US flag and a message: "877-WhyIslam — Get the Facts."
A second sign reads "Ramadan — 1.57 Billion Celebrating. Find Out Why."
Other 50 billboards will go up on highways around the US from El Paso to Daytona, from Wichita to Albuquerque.
Khan wishes those with questions about Islam would ask him or other Muslims before jumping to conclusions.
"There is a lot of curiosity about Islam, but also misinformation, uncertainty, and a sense of fear in approaching us."
WhyIslam was founded in 1999. It has launched similar campaigns in the past with subway, bus, radio and TV ads, yet it is the first campaign in New Jersey.
Although there are no official figures, the United States is believed to be home to between 6-8 million Muslims.
A US survey has revealed that the majority of Americans know very little about Muslims and their faith.
The timing of the ad campaign was chosen carefully as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches next month, offering Americans credible information about Islam from trusted sources.
"Prejudice is built on misinformation or ignorance," Mohamed El Filali, from the Islamic Center of Passaic County, told My Fox NY website.
"I think it's extremely important for people to hear information from the source as to what is Islam, who are Muslims and what have you."
Nahela Morales, a Union City resident and one of eight volunteers answering the phone, said that her curiosity about Islam following the 9/11 attacks led her to it.
Growing up as a Catholic, she started befriending Muslim women on MySpace and turned her questions to them. She got answers and converted to Islam five years later.
"My curiosity started with 9/11. I couldn’t believe that a religion that’s called ‘peace’ could kill so many people," Morales told New Jersey Real-Time News, referring to one of the meanings of the word ‘Islam.’
"I wish I had known about WhyIslam then."
Now Morales takes questions from curious Americans who wish to know more about her religion.
"Today I got a call from a woman asking what ‘Shari`ah’ is. She was very curious, and told me ‘I want to understand.’ I told her, ‘Ask away,’" Morales said.
"I told her that Shari`ah is a code of conduct. We have rules. Like, if you see a sign that says 30 miles per hour you stick to it."
Since 9/11, US Muslims have become sensitized to an erosion of their civil rights, with a prevailing belief that America was stigmatizing their faith.
Anti-Muslim frenzy has grown sharply in the US in recent months over plans to build a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York, resulting in attacks on Muslims and their property.
Shari`ah also came into hot discussions over the past few months.
Lawmakers in at least 13 states have introduced proposals forbidding local judges from considering Shari`ah when rendering verdicts on issues of divorces and marital disputes.
The new ad campaign is expected to lead to a huge volume of calls, as it is the usual case with every campaign.
Yet, organizers confirm that they do not aim at converting people to Islam.
"We’re not here to convert people," Khan said.
"We’re here to educate people."
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