A suburban Chicago Muslim group hopes two giant billboards hanging over busy Chicago highways will help to fight terrorism while also combating Islamophobia.
The billboards — which read “Muslims to Muslims: See Something. Say Something. Save Innocent Lives” — went up Sunday, one over Interstate 290, the other over I-55. They were paid for by members of the Association of Pakistani Americans of Bolingbrook, a community group that over the last two decades has brought an annual Pakistan Day celebration, two cricket fields and a Pakistani-flag hoisting ceremony to the southwest suburb. Two billboards with the same message had hung in other locations around Chicago earlier this summer.
“We are trying to tell average Americans this is who we are, and we do not condone (terrorism),” said Talat Rashid, founder of the group, who also is a member of Bolingbrook’s Planning Commission and was the suburb’s 2003 Citizen of the Year. “If we see anyone in our community that is off track, we will let the authorities know.”
But some Chicago-area Muslim leaders question the approach, arguing that the billboards perpetuate hurtful misconceptions about Muslims.
“It’s so vague,” said Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. “See something: That could mean profiling. That could mean somebody Middle Eastern wearing a long beard. And say something? Say to who?”
Kaiseruddin said he has been asked by officials at the Cook County Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Management to promote the slogan. But he refused, arguing that it is overly simplistic and creates a sense of hypervigilance that could lead to the reporting of innocent people — such as the 14-year-old Texas boy who was arrested in 2015 when his teacher suspected the clock he built may have been a bomb.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security uses the slogan, “If You See Something, Say Something,” without a reference to Muslims.
Others say the slogan could lead to other problems for the Muslim community.
“I think it’s kind of stating the obvious,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of Chicago’s Council on American Islamic Relations. “There’s no data to suggest that Muslims who see something don’t say something.”
Rashid, of the Bolingbrook Pakistani association, said he and members of his organization knew that some people wouldn’t like the billboards, and would view the message as Muslims admitting they have a role in radical acts of extremists involved in terrorist attacks across the U.S. and overseas.
But the group paid the nearly $7,600 advertising fee for four weeks of billboards because members think the message is a proactive way of educating the public about the difference between Muslim beliefs and extreme radicals who are not welcomed by the community.
GainPeace, a Muslim outreach organization based in Chicago, said it spent $12,000 on three billboards over Chicago highways that read, “Muslims Condemn All Violence.”
“There has always been a complaint from our fellow American neighbors that Muslims don’t speak out and they don’t condemn the violence,” said Sabeel Ahmed, director of GainPeace. “We want to show, big and loud, that we do.”
Rashid said while he and other members of his organization know that they have no connection to radical groups, Muslims here and elsewhere are left to explain themselves every time an act of terrorism makes headlines.
“Sometimes you have to bite your tongue and explain, hey, this is what it is,” Rashid said. “Like every average citizen, we are peace-loving citizens. If you look at us deeply, that’s what the message is.”
Kaiseruddin, whose group is an umbrella organization for 65 mosques, Islamic schools and other Muslim groups across the Chicago area, said the billboards are evidence of the nervous mindset Islamophobia has caused in the community.
There are about 400,000 Muslims living in the Chicago area, Kaiseruddin said, adding that in the last five years eight young Muslims from the Chicago area have been arrested on charges of providing support to terrorist organizations. In only two of those cases, the defendants pleaded guilty. The rest of the cases are still pending, putting families in limbo and leaving the community shaken, he said.
“It may be a small group, a very tiny group of people who are affected by (the arrests), but the consequences are so great that the entire community is panicked,” Kaiseruddin said.
At Chicago’s Council on American Islamic Relations, Rehab spends his days defending civil rights, fighting bigotry and promoting tolerance by speaking at schools and other awareness programs. He said he can understand the sentiment behind the Bolingbrook group’s billboards, but he favors a more direct approach.
“I’m in the business of countering Islamophobia. I know that work needs to be done,” Rehab said. “I just don’t think that cementing a misperception on a billboard is going to help.”
Still, Rashid said since the billboards went up, he has received more positive than negative comments. He saw one of the billboards himself while commuting to his office in Chicago earlier this week.
“Misguided people are putting shame through the whole Muslim world, and that’s very embarrassing,” Rashid said. “This is good for everyone. This is good for this country.”