The Story Behind the "Why Islam?" Billboards on I-95

Religious billboards are nothing new for Florida highways, especially the ones in the rural north. But five billboards unveiled on May 8 were erected along Interstate 95 by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) to educate South Floridians about Islam. They were prompted by growing levels of Islamophobia in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in January.

"Muhammed believed in peace, social justice, women's rights," the billboard declares. Two are even printed in Spanish. 

Other major cities like Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago also have the ICNA billboards. It is part of ICNA's national educational campaign called #WhoIsMuhammed. Passersby are invited to dial the ICNA's toll-free number or visit its website to learn about about jihad, ISIS, beheadings, women's rights, and other elements associated with Islam.  

An inquiry sent through the website led to being matched up with a Muslim man who invited New Times to the Islamic Center of Boca Raton, a $3 million mosque that opened in 2012.

During Friday prayers on June 19, the second day of Ramadan — the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims fast during daylight hours to purify their soul and focus more on God — ICNA volunteer Mohammad Assad said, "It's easy to mix up the culture with the religion." His college-aged son, Hamid, organized piles of religious pamphlets titled "Status of Women in Islam" and "What Does Islam Say About Terrorism?"

They insisted that most Americans have false beliefs about Islam. "Like women," Assad's wife, Nabeela, chimes in. "One of my favorite lines in the Qur'an tells people to treat their mothers better than anyone." Her hair is covered in a light-blue paisley scarf and her body in a long black dress. She said she covers herself because of "modesty."

Another woman covered her entire body except for her eyes in a burqa, a black garment and head piece. "I'm too beautiful to show any more of my body," she said, as the corners of her large dark eyes wrinkled when she smiled. 

At 1 p.m., in a women's prayer room that overlooks the men's, more than 25 women of all ages took off their shoes, preparing to pray. Facing Mecca more than 7,000 miles away, the women's prayer window looks onto a massive glass chandelier that hangs above the men. The prayer blasted from the speakers (in Arabic and then in English), and the women, covered in elaborately embroidered cover-ups and scarves, began to pray — standing, kneeling, lowering their heads onto the floor over and over. "It's not that we don't have rights and that's why we have to pray here," Nabeela whispered. "We don't want the men looking at our butts when we bend up and down!" 

The billboard posted in Hollywood.EXPAND
The billboard posted in Hollywood.

After about 15 minutes, prayer was over. The women left — some to return to work; others, to meet up with their husbands and sons downstairs. Most were keeping fast for Ramadan and hadn't eaten since the night before. Yet a band of young boys started a game of pick-up hoops in the courtyard as the sun seared down. They would not be allowed to drink water until sundown — over six hours away. "We tell the kids they don't have to keep fast," Nabeela explained, "but my little girl wants to. I think she wants to be like the rest of us. I tell her no! You're so skinny!" 

The little girls also don't have to wear the head scarves until they're older. But many do. One man who exited prayers explained that his daughter asked to start wearing the head scarf to school in first grade. He was terrified what the other children would say, that they would bully her. "Some did," he shrugs, "but she said, 'I am doing this for God.' It makes me cry thinking about how strong she is at that age." He said that his daughter's teacher, a Christian woman from Michigan, ended up converting to Islam after meeting his daughter and educating herself about the religion. She's expected to start teaching at an Islamic school nearby.

Khan explained that when the mosque was being constructed, vandals broke in and graffitied the walls. He didn't want to disclose what was written. "Mean things, ignorant things," he said. "Muhammad is about peace."

Many at the mosque shared stories about Islamophobia they experienced while living here in South Florida. Nabeela Assad, who works at a shoe retail store, said customers have walked in, glared at her head scarf, and then quickly exited the shop without uttering a word. "That's why I decided to sometimes stay in the back — it's better for business," she says. Her son Hamid Assad, who goes to college at FAU, has to constantly defend ignorant comments made by other students about ISIS (and it doesn't help when they make the news every week for killing women, children, and American journalists and point to Islam). "Muslims don't believe that ISIS and those who practice violence are real Muslims," he said. "It's not right. We don't support it. The Qur'an doesn't say anything about that." 

Even the billboards going up have attracted some negativity. The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) — an anti-Islamic organization listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — attempted to counter ICNA's billboards by submitting similar-looking ones to ClearChannel, the same company that hosts ICNA's ads in Atlanta. AFDI's ads read: "Muhammad believed in war, denial of rights to women, denial of rights to non-Muslims, deceit of unbelievers" and linked to a website that reroutes to the AFDI website. ClearChannel rejected the ad. The AFDI is run by Pamela Geller, who highlights violent interpretations of Islam and who has been the target of terror plots for her views. 

ICNA Vice President Imam Khalid Griggs has also experienced his share of Islamophobia. A Muslim chaplain at Wake Forest University, Griggs has had to deal with people objecting to his hiring. He is constantly accused of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. He says people have also asked him if he knows anybody who has ever beheaded someone. Once, someone even left a bucket of urine at his office door. But Griggs dismisses his obstacles. He points to the three Muslim students who were murdered in nearby Chapel Hill over a parking space earlier this year. "We do feel it was an attack rooted in Islamophobia," he says. "I am grateful nothing as dramatic or overt as being physically attacked or anything has happened."

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