CAIR-Chicago’s social media campaign generates conversation about Islam

By Ellen Kobe

Hasan Ahmad, or @hasanahmad80, as he is known in the Twitter-verse, sat on his computer Tuesday morning tweeting a series of photos with the hashtag #WhatAMuslimLooksLike. The 34-year-old in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, received 63 “likes” and 43 “favorites” (at the time of publication) on one photo of Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, an online education platform.

Ahmad and Khan have at least one thing in common — they are Muslims.

Ahmad’s Twitter efforts were for the #WhatAMuslimLooksLike social media campaign, a hashtag-based conversation started by the Center for American-Islamic Relations in Chicago. Ahmad’s tweet was just one of more than 1,300 that have been sent out since the campaign began Monday afternoon. The online discussion, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, aims at highlighting the variety of people who practice Islam.

“I thought there was a lack in dialogue of how truly diverse Muslims are,” said Renner Larson, communications coordinator at CAIR-Chicago.

The stats for Ahmad’s tweet about Khan aren’t groundbreaking. But Ahmad said any effort he can make to educate the public about Muslims would benefit society as a whole.

“I focused on people who were contributing to society on a non-religious basis,” Ahmad said. “That’s what people want to see — positive change at the community and the society level.”

The #WhatAMuslimLooksLike conversation, which revolved around the Twitter hashtag that users could click on and follow, didn’t necessarily start as a formal campaign effort, Larson said. There was no planning, no structure, no immediate goal in mind. But the hashtag became widely used, garnering tweets from across the nation and overseas.

Salman Khan — not the educator mentioned earlier, but a 33-year-old from Lloydminster, Alberta, in Canada — said that he felt inclined to participate because of the negative portrayals of Muslims in the national news media, particularly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

“The people around the world should know that there are more Muslims around this world that do–not a whole lot–but a little bit to make this world a better place,” Khan said, adding that while watching news about terrorists associated with Islam, he often hears pundits question the existence of peaceful Muslims. “This is our way of reaching out and saying, ‘Here we are.’”

The #WhatAMuslimLooksLike campaign is geared toward educating those who do not practice Islam or know any Muslims, Larson said. Scott Alexander, associate professor of Islamic Studies at Catholic Theological Union, said that the campaign achieves this in two ways: by treating Muslims as individuals and by showing images of Muslims that differ from the terrorists that people see in the mainstream media.

But the difficulty in reaching new audiences lies in the fact that many social media users choose who they follow based on their own beliefs. Alexander said that in this case, this isn’t a bad thing.

“I’m a big proponent of preaching to the choir because the choir needs preaching,” said Alexander, who is also director of the Catholic-Muslim studies program. “The choir is your core constituency. The choir has lives outside of the church and friends outside the church.”

With this notion, Alexander said that #WhatAMuslimLooksLike has the potential to spread to social media users who aren’t familiar with Muslims.

But still, a few tweeters have used the hashtag in the opposite way that CAIR-Chicago intended. For example, one user used the hashtag to tweet photos of murders by terrorists. Ahmad said another user condemned his tweet about Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and a Nobel Prize winner.

Jill Goddard, public relations director at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, said her organization has experience with similar online campaigns after tragedy. The association’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign emerged after a shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Goddard said that with the campaign, her organization was able to successfully change the conversation from talking about being victimized by gun violence to showing strength and love in spite of the incident.

She noted that online campaigns such as #WhatAMuslimLooksLike are ways to engage and connect with people of different faiths.

“It inspires people to learn more about a religious community, see themselves within that religious community and perhaps challenge their own beliefs,” Goddard said.