In Chicago, Dueling Ads Over The Meaning Of 'Jihad'

There is an advertising battle going on over the Arabic term jihad. In Chicago, a group has launched a bus and subway ad campaign meant to reclaim the term jihad from another series of ads that presents jihadists as violent.

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If you ride a bus or train in San Francisco, Chicago or here in Washington, D.C., you may have noticed an advertising battle. It's a war of words over the Arabic term jihad. Monique Parsons reports from Chicago on a campaign that seeks to reclaim a word commonly associated, in the U.S., with terrorism.

MONIQUE PARSONS, BYLINE: The word jihad seems to be just about everywhere. Islamic extremists around the globe use it, terrorists use it and, closer to home, some Chicago commuters are facing the word jihad at the bus stop, and in the ugliest way. Ads plastered on the sides of some city buses show startling images of Osama bin Laden or the U.S. army major behind the massacre at Fort Hood, each labeled My Jihad in bold letters.

PAMELA GELLER: Our new campaign focuses on how jihadists use the texts and the teachings of Islam to justify violence and supremacism.

PARSONS: That's Pamela Geller, the woman behind these negatives ads which she plans to roll out in cities across the country. Geller also ran some controversial anti-jihad ads last fall. Those got the attention of Ahmed Rehab, who heads the Chicago office of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. He responded by starting an advertising blitz of his own with the goal of changing the way people think about jihad.

AHMED REHAB: She has chosen to become the publicist for extremists. She wants the voice of bin Laden on the sides of buses. We want the voice of mainstream listeners, of majority moderate, peaceful Muslims.

PARSONS: Most non-Muslims interpret jihad as holy war, but scholars say it has a broader meaning for Muslims, that of deep internal struggle. Rehab's campaign called My Jihad put photographs on the sides of buses and in subway stations showing ordinary American Muslims talking about jihad as personal challenge: coping with a death of a child, say, or staying fit despite a busy schedule.

SADAF SYED: Smile, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Smile.

SYED: No talking. Smile.

PARSONS: Fifteen floors above the Chicago Loop, photographer Sadaf Syed lays on her back, aiming her camera at a huddle of grinning children.

SYED: A little more. Good job. Look at me, guys. Yeah, that's good.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yay.

PARSONS: They try different poses, standing together, flashing peace signs, laying on the floor in the shape of a peace sign. The photos are for My Jihad's second national ad campaign. Mona Elgindy is watching her kids pose.

MONA ELGINDY: I think it's a good cause. I think that part of it makes me feel like it's worth it.

PARSONS: Elgindy is an attorney who lives in suburban Chicago, but she took a day off and pulled 12-year-old Hidea, 9-year-old Mustafa and 7-year-old Taha out of school to take part in the My Jihad campaign. These new ads will urge kids to stand up to bullying.

ELGINDY: I felt it was something very relevant that they would understand and appreciate. They were excited.

PARSONS: American-Muslims are often afraid to even use the word jihad or to talk about their faith. Now, in New York, Missouri and Wisconsin, they're mounting their own My Jihad campaign. Even non-Muslims are posting support on their Facebook page, and college students are organizing jihad days. Kambiz Ghanea Bassiri teaches about Islam in America at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He's not surprised this campaign is gaining momentum.

KAMBIZ GHANEA BASSIRI: It's tremendously important because in general public, people often talk about the sort of struggle for the soul of Islam and that there's a battle for, you know, redeeming Islam. But that's not really the challenge that most American Muslims face. The challenge that they face is raising their children, raising the next generation.

PARSONS: At the photo shoot, 11-year-old Aliya Blackburn says her jihad is to work hard in school and nail her back flip in gymnastics. Her brother Robbie says his jihad is to get better at basketball. Look for their faces in the next My Jihad ad campaign. For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons.

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