by SAFIA SAMEE ALI
A billboard situated on a major highway in Indianapolis sarcastically refers to the Prophet Mohammed, one the Islam’s most revered figures, as “The Perfect Man” before calling him “slave owner & dealer” and someone who “tortured & killed unbelievers.”
The anti-Muslim ad — put up amid several Islamophobic demonstrations throughout the country — is drawing concern and outrage among local Muslim leaders and organizations.
“These are completely false statements,” said Rima Shahid, executive director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, who found out about the billboard through an anonymous tip. “I’d really like people to read about the seven points that are mentioned on the billboard because you’ll find that none of them are true.”
The billboard does not name any group or website and instead signs off with “Educate Truthophobes.”
An online search of “Truthophobes” produces several general anti-Muslim websites.
“It’s a cowardly act because they didn’t put a name on the billboard even though they must have gone through a lot of effort and resources to put it up,” Shahid said.
Muslims comprise about 3 percent of the state’s population. This kind of rhetoric is painting them in a negative and false light, she said, adding that it’s her belief that the billboard represents only a “small faction of a fringe group.”
“As a Muslim Hoosier, I am outraged and shocked that this would go up in our city,” Shahid said. “This is the first time hate speech like this has appeared. We didn’t think these type of beliefs existed in Indianapolis and now it’s in the heart of the city.”
Indianapolis resident Ali Khan has driven by the billboard several times and says it makes him “sick” to see it.
“You feel under attack when you see something like that, it’s just so hateful to spread vicious lies about a religion,” he said. “If someone is confused or has a problem with Islam, why not just talk to a Muslim before paying for a billboard?”
The billboard appears a week before a national anti-Muslim march organized by alt-right group ACT for America. The rallies will take place in over 20 cities across the nation with one leg of the demonstration taking place in Indianapolis.
It also comes amid a fatal attack on two Portland men who were trying to protect a pair of women on a train from an anti-Muslim tirade by white supremacist Joseph Christian.
The number of anti-Muslim incidents and crimes in the nation spiked 57 percent since 2015, according to a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“It is a fear-mongering tactic to further perpetuate ignorance about the religion.”
And there was a colossal 197 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate groups — from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“We believe in free speech and support the First Amendment but this billboard is rooted in bigotry and further divides our community,” said Faryal Khatri, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Society of North America, which is headquartered in Indianapolis.
“It is a fear-mongering tactic to further perpetuate ignorance about the religion,” she said.
But Muslims are in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan and this phase of the month focuses on forgiveness, she said.
Several interfaith groups are already getting together to put together an event to combat this “negative narrative and rhetoric,” she said.
The billboard also sits within the jurisdiction of Congressman Andre Carson, who is one of two Muslims serving in Congress. The other in Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.
“I think there’s a way to debate and be Socratic without being disrespectful or undermining people and causing a sense of isolation,” Carson told the Indianapolis Star, adding that he is disappointed that people have decided to use their free speech protections as a platform “to spread hateful, vile things that are divisive to people.”
Shahid added that incidents like this could be better translated into a dialogue.
“I would love to meet the person who put up the billboard just so I could sit down with them and just have a conversation about it,” Shahid said. “It does hurt, but we will respond to it the way the Prophet would, with a positive approach and peaceful conversation.”