By Muna Khan
A group of Muslims in Chicago has banded together to denounce the militant group ISIS with disparaging messages on billboards posted in four cities — Phoenix, St. Louis and Miami, as well as in Chicago.
The billboards, the first of which went up in Chicago on Aug. 5, read “Hey ISIS, You Suck!!!” and are accompanied by a small Quran verse “Life is Sacred.” Each billboard is signed with the social media hashtag “Actual Muslims.”
The initiative is the brainchild of a group of Muslims who approached Sound Vision, a 28-year-old PR and media communication firm based in Chicago. Sound Vision works on issues affecting the Muslim community. Its founder and president, Abdul Malik Mujahid, said the company has been working for two years on campaigns to combat stereotypes about Muslim Americans and Islam. They distribute brochures to explain that the Islam practiced by ISIS terrorists is not the same religion taught by Prophet Mohammed.
The cost of putting up the billboards varied, depending upon the city. The funds for erecting them were raised by Muslims in each community, who pooled their resources through donation drives. In Chicago, for example, it cost $2,500 to erect the billboard; in Arizona it was $4,000 and in Miami it was $5,000. The group plans to erect more billboards across the nation, including in Times Square in New York, where the cost could run as much as $25,000. The group is using a crowd funding platform for this purpose and has raised nearly $15,000 so far.
The billboards are an effort to help debunk the notion spread by Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, among others, that Muslim Americans condone terrorism.
“That impression is [the result of] a thoughtful strategy by Islamophobes who have a $200 million budget and 34 organizations that perpetuate these type of things,” said Mujahid.
He said that despite statements by Muslims denouncing terrorist attacks in the U.S. and abroad, the community remains under a cloud of suspicion, which has a distressing effect. “It has a huge impact on the Muslim community,” he said. “When neighbors are against you, it hits where it hurts the most.”
It was against this backdrop that a group of Muslims got together in Chicago last summer and developed the idea for a series of billboards. From the moment they went up, the posts garnered media attention. Newspapers and TV stations in St. Louis all covered the unveiling of the billboard there. The local Fox News outlet gave it a live 10-minute spot, according to Dr. Muhammad Siddiqi, executive director of Sound Vision.
But Siddiqi said billboards are about more than media coverage. “The billboards create opportunity to begin a conversation,” he said. “[Once they’ve been seen] you can explain in detail what Islam is and what its teachings are.”
While the use of the word “sucks” generated much conversation, especially among older members of the group, ultimately, Mujahid said, it was approved because many of the younger members felt it reflected contemporary language and culture and might resonate more with younger people who view the billboards.
The “Hey ISIS, You Suck!!!” billboard is not the only effort by a Muslim group to spur action and conversation. Talat Rashid, founder of the Association of Pakistani Americans of Bolingbrook, and a member of the Planning Commission, put up a different billboard on July 17 in Bolingbrook with the controversial message: “Muslims to Muslims: See Something, Say Something, Save Innocent Lives.”
Critics charged that Rashid’s billboard promotes the narrative that Muslim Americans were keeping silent and, therefore, complicit in attacks like the ones carried out by ISIS-inspired domestic terrorists like Omar Mateen, who shot 49 people at a gay club in Orlando in June, and the San Bernardino attackers, Tafsheen Malik and Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 people in Dec. 2015. But Rashid, a staunch Donald Trump supporter, said his billboard is simply a call to the community to step forward.
“I was bombarded by the media asking how I had the courage to put this up when no one in the community was saying it,” he said.
Rashid says he doesn’t want anyone living next to him, Muslim or not, who could blow up a house. “That’s what the message is,” said. “If I see something, it is my responsibility as a U.S. citizen to let authorities know. Our religion does not say blow up innocent people; this is not jihad.”
Rashid is supportive of the “Hey ISIS, you suck!!!” billboard as well.
“I got a lot of positive comments from lots of people, including Christians saying these are the kinds of comments that need to go up,” he said.
But not everyone is a fan of the billboards.
“I despise the idea of us jumping to defend ourselves as if we are all collectively guilty of heinous crimes committed by individuals, groups and states,” said Zafar Malik, dean for development and university relations at East West University in Chicago. “I don’t see NRA members buying billboard space to apologize for the murders committed by gun owners. These, by the way, far exceed the few murders committed by ISIS-inspired loonies.”
Zafar was critical of the groups’ desire to be embraced by the mainstream media and described the campaign as a “feel-good factor” for those who seek to be embraced as “good Muslims.”
“My biggest beef with this Muslim-inspired apologia is that it’s lazy and doesn’t fix anything long-term,” he said. “Muslims need to seriously consider their place and future of their progeny by investing and contributing to the intellectual spaces of their new home rather than just remaining on the periphery.”
But Malik Mujahid said the billboards are an affirmative step in the direction of changing American media narrative about Islam.
“Americans are people with sense of fair hearing,” he said, “but it is failure of Muslims that they have been defeated by Islamophobes when it comes to getting the attention of mainstream media.”