Billboards are springing up across the U.S. with messages offering a view of the Prophet Mohammad and the Muslim faith as a non-violent religion that preaches love and tolerance, while others carry proselytizing messages inviting non-Muslims to explore the Muslim faith as the answer to life's questions.
According to Reuters, the billboard campaign is being organized by the group Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). The group has organized campaigns in the past designed to counter negative perceptions of the Islamic faith.
A previous billboard campaign by the group had attempted to draw attention to the similarities between Christianity and Islam. Both religions consider Jesus a prophet, but unlike Christians, Muslims reject the Christian teaching that Jesus is the son of God, saying that it blasphemous to say that God has a son.
But the current campaign is the largest single effort by the group so far. ICNA says it will include more than 100 billboards across the country.
According to the organizers the purpose of the campaign is to counter the negative portrayal of Islam by anti-Islam activists. It also attempts to counter rising anti-Islam sentiments following the deadly January attack by Islamic militants on the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The militants targeted the Charlie Hebdo offices in retaliation against cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad in a manner that Muslims found offensive.
ICNA says it also intends to promote the message among Muslims that violence is not the best way to respond to to offensive Muhammad cartoons.
Waqas Syed, Deputy Secretary General of the organization, said, "We thought a proper approach would be to actually educate the larger public about his [Muhammad's] personality, which exemplifies love and brotherhood."
The billboards carry a variety messages. Some of the messages are overtly evangelizing while others are intended primarily to promote a positive image of the Prophet Muhammad and of Islam.
"Looking for the answers to life? Discover Muhammad"Other messages attempt to portray Muhammad as a supporter of women's rights and a promoter of religious tolerance.
"Kindness is a mark of faith."
"Muhammad believed in peace, social justice, women's rights."
Syed told Reuters that although some of the billboard messages have a proselytizing flavor, the primary aim of the campaign is to promote a more favorable view of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.
Todd Green at the Luther College in Iowa, who studies "Islamophobia" in Western societies, told Reuters, "Under the circumstances, it's a pretty bold move. When you're a minority religion, you face a lot of pressure from the majority population not to proselytize."
As Green's statement anticipates the campaign could spark a backlash amid rising anti-Islam sentiments expressed recently through Muhammad cartoon drawing events, protests and demonstrations outside mosques, vandalism and violence targeted at Muslims.
At Pamela Geller's Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas, May, two Muslim gunmen were shot dead as they tried to carry out an attack at the event.
But so far, there haven't been overtly hostile reactions to the billboards, according to Imam Khalid Griggs, vice president of ICNA, although recently, an anti-Islam group put up billboards showing Muhammad cartoon drawings.
Previous campaigns by the group and other North American Muslim groups have elicited responses from opposing groups. A previous attempt to portray Islam as non-violent by promoting a non-violent interpretation of the "Jihad" was opposed by anti-Islam groups which put up billboards portraying Islam as violent.
ICNA held its last annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland, attended by more than 20,000. The conference considered strategies to counter growing anti-Islamic sentiments. Naeem Baig, ICNA president told the Baltimore Sun that the image of the Prophet Muhammad in the West is different from his portrayal in mainstream Islam and that the negative image is derived mostly from the actions of extremist groups who do not represent the majority of Muslims.
"The stereotypical image of the prophet is not what we are taught or preach. The Islam we know or practice is totally different from that image. Our Islam is a commitment to God and… treating all human beings as equals."Muslims currently make up less than one percent of the population of the U.S., but according to recent survey by Pew Research Center, the population is projected to double by 2050.
[Images: Wikimedia Commons]