Firestorm over a campaign to understand Islam

Mary Snow
CNN Correspondent

A campaign to promote better understanding of Islam using ads in New York City subway cars has sparked controversy, with one tabloid paper calling it “Jihad Train” and a congressman saying the campaign should be stopped before it starts.


We wanted to check with the source of that controversy – an imam promoting the campaign who had also served as a character witness for Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik convicted of being mastermind behind the 1993 plot to blow up the World Trade Center.

This imam, Siraj Wahhaj, was named as one of 170 unindicted co-conspirators in the plot. And he allegedly called the FBI and CIA the “real terrorists.”

So, what’s this man doing, claiming to promote “understanding?”

We went to ask him.

Just walking into the Masjid at-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, my photojournalists and I were greeted with suspicion, even though two mosque members escorted us inside.

The mosque would look like any other unidentified brick building if not for a small sign hanging over the entrance. A gate runs alongside the building, dividing the sidewalk from an entrance for worshippers.

Once inside, we are taken to see Imam Wahhaj, who founded the mosque. He’s sitting behind a desk, surrounded by books, and offers a big smile as he welcomes us into his office. Still, he makes it clear he has reservations about talking with us – wary of how he’ll be portrayed after seeing himself called “Terror imam” in the local tabloid.

But Imam Wahhaj tells me has agreed to talk because he believes in the plan to put ads in 1000 New York subway cars in September to coincide with Ramadan. The ads are aimed at promoting Islam and erasing negative images.

The project is sponsered not by Wahhaj, or by his mosque, but by the Islamic Circle of North America. Wahhaj isn’t involved in organizing the campaign. He says he took it upon himself to do a videotape promoting it , and that’s what sparked the controversy.

Imam Wahhaj says he wants to focus on the positives of the Muslim religion. But he concedes he can understand why some people might consider him controversial.

Despite being named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the World Trade Center plot, and speaking on behalf of mastermind Sheik Rahman, Wahhaj notes he’s never been criminally charged and says he’s never been approached by the FBI. He says he now regrets some controversial statements, and admits he’s toned down his rhetoric.

But my question to him was: are you the right person to promote this campaign given the negative attention you can draw? After all, the whole purpose of the campaign is to teach people about Islam and dispel myths that the religion promotes violence.

The ads are stark black and white posters asking about words associated with the Muslim religion, such as “Head Scarf?” or “Prophet Muhammad?” Those simple questions are followed by the words: “You deserve to know” and a phone number you can call for more information.

About 5 million people ride the subway every day. The ads are aimed at grabbing their attention. But even before the ads are out, attention is focused on a promoter with ties to a sheik put away for life on terrorism charges.

Without hesitating, Wahhaj insists he is the right person to promote this campaign, says he was wrongly accused and asks, “does that mean I can’t stand for something?” He points out work he’s done in his community, and the fact that he was the first Muslim chosen to lead a session of the House of Representatives in 1991.

I asked a spokesman for the Islamic Circle of North America how the organization felt about the attention Wahhaj brought to the campaign and whether it was a distraction. Did he stand by Wahhaj’s promotion? “Yes.” The spokesman explained the controversy over Wahhaj is a perfect microcosm of the way Islam and its members are misrepresented.

Maybe so. But now new York Congressman Peter King, a New York Republican is asking the agency that runs the subways to reject the ads. He says he has no problem with the ads themselves, but has a real problem with Wahhaj, whom he called a “known Islamic extremist.”

So, yes, the ads have prompted discussion, but not what organizers envisioned. Unless the subway system gives into Congressman King’s demand, millions of New York subway riders will have an opportunity to determine where that dicussion goes from here.


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