By David Lepeska
As anti-Muslim rhetoric rises at the local and national levels–some of it fueled by the presidential campaign–a group of Chicago-area Muslims is battling back, using tactics ranging from a TV ad campaign to public forums against bigotry.
Gain Peace, a Chicago-based Islamic outreach organization, spent $40,000 in December to produce two television ads intended to promote Islam as a just faith and counter negative portrayals. The spots, running through March in the Chicago area on FOX, CNN and TNT, depict friendly Muslim students and professionals and display a phone number and website 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, the head of a Muslim advocacy group urged attendees to fight attacks 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 mis-education,” said Ahmed 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 grown substantially of late. Last November, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady urged the Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights, the state’s leading immigrant support group, to expel C.A.I.R.-Chicago from its list of affiliated organizations. He cited “C.A.I.R’.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 Sharia law as a potential threat to U.S. sovereignty. One of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, Walid Phares, regularly warns that Muslims aim to take over American institutions and impose Sharia, a legal code based on the Quran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad that can involve primitive punishments, such as cutting off the hands of a thief.
Republican-sponsored bills in more than twenty states, including Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri, aim to ban courts from recognizing foreign laws, legislative shorthand for Sharia. Yet no U.S. Muslim organization is calling for the institution of Sharia.
Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield, said the rhetoric may 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,” said Mr. Redfield.
The impact 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 Chicago’s O’Hare Airport fired a baggage handler who had allegedly written “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, producer of the TV ads, is part of the Islamic Circle of North America, a Queens-based Islamic education organization 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 grassroots 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-Springfield, thinks the Muslim groups are smart to combat anti-Muslim rhetoric. “In politics, if you don’t define yourself someone else will,” he said. “They have to be pro-active in terms of trying to neutralize ignorance and willful manipulation of negative opinion.”
Islamic Circle hopes to distribute the TV ads nationwide.