By Kelly Hawes
According to the Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life, those who identify as Muslim make up just under 1 percent of the U.S. population.
The number might be even lower in Indiana.
Why then would someone put up a billboard along a busy Indianapolis interstate denigrating the Prophet Muhammad?
The answer, I suppose, is obvious: Fear.
Fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. Fear of the foreign and different.
The billboard’s message is born out of that fear, and it’s designed to spread that fear far and wide. It’s a warning that Muslims are dangerous, that they should be kept away.
“It is a horrible billboard,” Rima Shahid, executive director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, told The Indianapolis Star. “I’m outraged by it, but saddened at the same time.”
The billboard’s owner, Don Woodsmall, declined to name those behind the message. He sent The Star a written statement saying the ad had been sponsored by “a group of patriotic Americans” who had been denied space by national companies.
It’s ironic that anyone would call sponsors of such a message patriotic.
The fact is that the United States is now and always has been a melting pot, a conglomeration of many races, religions and ethnicities.
Our nation’s founders sought to embrace that diversity. They envisioned a place where those who had been persecuted in their homelands could come and practice their religions freely, without government interference.
They would not have supported that billboard. They would have been appalled.
Woodsmall defended his clients’ motivations.
“Their desire, born out of love and not hate, is to launch a national conversation,” he said in his written statement.
Shahid called the billboard’s sponsors cowards.
“If you have some kind of stance, you should want to stand up next to your statement,” she said.
Shahid countered the billboard’s claims in a post on her organization’s Facebook page.
“The billboard statements are false or misleading and in no way representative of the man that the Prophet Muhammad was or the life he led,” she said.
She said her organization had been looking at options for having the billboard removed. She said it had also been exploring the possibility of posting a counter-message nearby. In the meantime, she offered an invitation.
“We urge the person or people responsible for the billboard to come and have a conversation with us to learn about Muslims today and about the history of Islam,” she said in the Facebook post.
That’s not a new invitation.
Hoosier Muslims have made efforts to reach out to their fellow Hoosiers. In March, they sponsored a #MeetAMuslim day where Muslim men and women stood in public spaces holding signs asking passersby to come and talk to them.
That same Pew research study I cited from 2014 found that only 38 percent of Americans had met an adherent of the Muslim faith. They have no idea whether what they’re reading on that billboard is true. They have no context for its claims.
It’s time to change that.
Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org