Spiritual Subway: Islam Ads Seek To Educate NYC

A grassroots Islamic awareness group is hoping its new ad campaign will help catch the eyes of millions of people who ride the New York City subway system every day.

Tucked in between subway car notices featuring poetry, as well as advertisements for everything from gum and beer to dermatologists and churches, are ads designed to educate New Yorkers about Islam.

The group behind the ads, the Islamic Circle of North America, decided that Ramadan, which takes place all through the month of September, was the perfect time to implement what they call their "Subway Project" on 1,000 of the system's more than 6,000 subway cars.

The design is simple: black, white and very little text. The two-paneled ads feature the words "Islam," "Head Scarf" or "Prophet Muhammad," as well as the phrase "You deserve to know." The ads also include a phone number and a Web site for those who want to learn more about Islam.

"It is the simplicity of the ads that draws you in," says Umar Beig, a member of the Islamic Circle of North America.

Beig hopes the ads will get people to start a dialogue and ask questions:

"What is the role of women in Islam?"

"What about polygamy?"

"Why do you pray five times a day?"

When the group first announced the ad campaign this summer, it immediately raised an outcry. There were negative tabloid headlines. A New York Post cover story on the ads in July was called "Jihad Train."

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said that while the ads were not a problem, some of those behind the ads had a history of extremism. Specifically, King said that one of the people involved with the group, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, testified as a character witness for Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted of conspiracy in a plot to blow up New York City landmarks.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) rose to the ads' defense and said it was an unfounded case of guilt by association, noting that there is no evidence Wahhaj was involved in any terrorism. What's more, ICNA says he is only a community activist who supports the campaign, but is not involved in it.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had calming words for both sides.

"If you were just advocating becoming a Muslim, I would assume that the First Amendment would protect you," he said. "If you were advocating the violent overthrow of the government and terrorism, the First Amendment would not."

Reaction On The Cars

The ads blend into the other displayed ads on the subway, and the hue and cry can seem a bit overblown. Most riders asked said they didn't even notice the ads until they were asked to look.

"If you are interested in learning about Islam, it is pointing you in the direction of the Web site," said rider David Mahl. "But it doesn't really make me want to look in that direction" of the ad.

One rider said she only reads the poetry on the walls of the train, never the ads.

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