Daily Herald: Suburban Muslims use positive campaigns to counter anti-Islam messages

Suburban Muslims are using social media and other positive campaigns to counter anti-Islam messages in the wake of global protests — some violent — over a controversial video about Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, and anti-Muslim posters plastered in New York City subway stations.

A panel discussion tonight hosted by the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park and featuring area Islamic scholars will offer positive ways Muslims can respond to the inflammatory video, while a Saturday walk in North suburban Zion aims to demonstrate how Muslims are giving back to American society. Both events are open to the public.

For Naperville mom Angie Emara, the issue hit home when a women’s rights defender and lecturer, Mona Eltahawy, was arrested on charges of spray-painting over the New York City subway ad equating the Arabic word “jihad” — a believer’s spiritual struggle against one’s own shortcomings and, in some contexts, against injustice — with “savages.”

The ad, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, appeared Monday after a federal judge ruled in July that it was protected speech and ordered the Metropolitan Transit Authority to allow the posters despite its initial refusal because of its policy against demeaning language.

Emara said while she doesn’t entirely condone Eltahawy’s actions, she and many of her fellow Muslims felt frustrated and didn’t know how to protest the vilification of their faith and community.

When the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Chicago launched a Twitter campaign to educate people about the meaning of the word “jihad,” she immediately jumped on board.

Emara joined thousands of Muslims and people of other faith traditions worldwide who have been tweeting nonstop — roughly 3,700 tweets since the campaign launched Wednesday — using the hashtag “#MyJihad” to send positive messages about their personal struggles.

“It’s really hitting a lot of people. … It’s reaching masses, quickly,” said Emara, a 35-year-old former schoolteacher and stay-at-home mother of three children under 10 years old for whom she wants to set a good example. “I think it’s a brilliant way to use social media. … It’s the most peaceful way.”

Agency Executive Director Ahmed Rehab said the motivation for the campaign is to get to the root of the problem of Islamophobia and go beyond condemning hate speech. Rehab acknowledged a lot of Muslims are apprehensive about using the term “jihad” because it is widely associated with terrorists.

“No one, even many Muslims, objected to the misuse of the term ‘jihad,’” he said. “If we’re going to reclaim Islam from extremists — both Muslim and anti-Muslim because they have the exact same ideology and same beliefs — then we have to reclaim the concept and the terms that we believe in and we’ve practiced for hundreds of years.”

Rehab gave the example of his grandmother, who though bedridden with diabetes and multiple sclerosis for seven years, dealt with it by saying, “It’s my jihad.”

“That’s the very concept of jihad — working to a better place,” he said.

Rehab said the response to the Twitter campaign has been “mind-blowing,” with tweets pouring in from Australia, England, the Middle East and South Asia. It’s also gaining support on Facebook from organizations such as Americans Against Islamophobia.

“We’re seeing Christians and Jews chime in … people who have never known the meaning of the term, and now they know,” Rehab said.

CAIR-Chicago plans to launch its own ad campaign on trains and buses in Chicago.

“This is us saying we will not be intimated and reclaim our beliefs from extremists within and without,” Rehab said.

Azam Nizamuddin of Bloomingdale said there is a need for more dialogue within the Muslim community about reaction to offensive messages like the video about Prophet Muhammad.

“The discourse was too focused upon the video and explaining away the behavior of Muslims abroad,” said Nizamuddin, an adjunct professor of Islamic studies at Loyola University Chicago who will be moderating Friday’s panel discussion, 7 to 9 p.m. at Islamic Foundation, 300 W. Highridge Road, where knowledgeable scholars will be helping the audience understand the Islamic tradition better.

“It’s important for this issue to be a part of the discussion at mosques that reacting in a violent and overly zealous way is really inappropriate,” he said.

Mosques also need to promote positive teaching about the Prophet Muhammad, he added.

“The problem is that Muslims really are not talking enough in a public, positive way and that’s what needs to be done,” Nizamuddin said.

The nation’s leading Muslim youth organization is conducting three national walkathons Saturday, dubbed “Walk For Humanity,” promoting the true spirit of the Islamic faith and character of Prophet Muhammad and to benefiting local charities, said Ahmed Khan, regional spokesman for Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association USA.

“We are promoting that Islam is for peace and it’s for life,” Khan said. “In response to any negative campaign, our response is we have to give back to our community. Amid this environment (of hate), this is an event that will help the image or bridge the gap of understanding Islam.”

The Zion walk will begin at 1 p.m. from the Zion Park District Leisure Center, 2400 Dowie Memorial Drive. The event benefits the Boys and Girls Club of Lake County. For information or to donate, visit walkforhumanityusa.org.