July 23rd, 2008
08:45 AM ET

Firestorm over a campaign to understand Islam

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/US/07/22/islam.ads/art.islamad.cnn.jpg caption="The ads feature key words about Islam on one side and the words 'You deserve to know' on the other."]
Mary Snow
CNN Correspondent

A campaign to promote better understanding of Islam using ads in New York City subway cars has sparked controversy, with one tabloid paper calling it "Jihad Train" and a congressman saying the campaign should be stopped before it starts.


We wanted to check with the source of that controversy - an imam promoting the campaign who had also served as a character witness for Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik convicted of being mastermind behind the 1993 plot to blow up the World Trade Center.

This imam, Siraj Wahhaj, was named as one of 170 unindicted co-conspirators in the plot. And he allegedly called the FBI and CIA the "real terrorists."

So, what's this man doing, claiming to promote "understanding?"

We went to ask him.

Just walking into the Masjid at-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, my photojournalists and I were greeted with suspicion, even though two mosque members escorted us inside.

The mosque would look like any other unidentified brick building if not for a small sign hanging over the entrance. A gate runs alongside the building, dividing the sidewalk from an entrance for worshippers.

Once inside, we are taken to see Imam Wahhaj, who founded the mosque. He's sitting behind a desk, surrounded by books, and offers a big smile as he welcomes us into his office. Still, he makes it clear he has reservations about talking with us - wary of how he'll be portrayed after seeing himself called "Terror imam" in the local tabloid.

But Imam Wahhaj tells me has agreed to talk because he believes in the plan to put ads in 1000 New York subway cars in September to coincide with Ramadan. The ads are aimed at promoting Islam and erasing negative images.

The project is sponsered not by Wahhaj, or by his mosque, but by the Islamic Circle of North America. Wahhaj isn't involved in organizing the campaign. He says he took it upon himself to do a videotape promoting it , and that's what sparked the controversy.

Imam Wahhaj says he wants to focus on the positives of the Muslim religion. But he concedes he can understand why some people might consider him controversial.

Despite being named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the World Trade Center plot, and speaking on behalf of mastermind Sheik Rahman, Wahhaj notes he's never been criminally charged and says he's never been approached by the FBI. He says he now regrets some controversial statements, and admits he's toned down his rhetoric.

But my question to him was: are you the right person to promote this campaign given the negative attention you can draw? After all, the whole purpose of the campaign is to teach people about Islam and dispel myths that the religion promotes violence.

The ads are stark black and white posters asking about words associated with the Muslim religion, such as "Head Scarf?" or "Prophet Muhammad?" Those simple questions are followed by the words: "You deserve to know" and a phone number you can call for more information.

About 5 million people ride the subway every day. The ads are aimed at grabbing their attention. But even before the ads are out, attention is focused on a promoter with ties to a sheik put away for life on terrorism charges.

Without hesitating, Wahhaj insists he is the right person to promote this campaign, says he was wrongly accused and asks, “does that mean I can't stand for something?” He points out work he's done in his community, and the fact that he was the first Muslim chosen to lead a session of the House of Representatives in 1991.

I asked a spokesman for the Islamic Circle of North America how the organization felt about the attention Wahhaj brought to the campaign and whether it was a distraction. Did he stand by Wahhaj's promotion? "Yes." The spokesman explained the controversy over Wahhaj is a perfect microcosm of the way Islam and its members are misrepresented.

Maybe so. But now new York Congressman Peter King, a New York Republican is asking the agency that runs the subways to reject the ads. He says he has no problem with the ads themselves, but has a real problem with Wahhaj, whom he called a "known Islamic extremist."

So, yes, the ads have prompted discussion, but not what organizers envisioned. Unless the subway system gives into Congressman King's demand, millions of New York subway riders will have an opportunity to determine where that dicussion goes from here.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Islam • Religion
soundoff (62 Responses)
  1. amana raquib

    Assalamu alaikum wa yahdeekumullah,
    i might state my point through the following,
    imagine a person spending his/her whole life in a claustrophobic lab trying to find solution to some long sought problem in the area of medicine. how about someone who does not know and understand the significance of this task., supposedly coming from a different social milieu? he will at best term this zealous commitment insane.
    now coming over to our present discussion, i guess we are moving in a circle. unless one does not try to see from the vantage point of ppl accused in this report, one cannot find the meaning/ sense in their actions. because what is important/worthwhile/significant derives from our opinion on the overall meaning we give to all this business of life and death. but the circle gets completed when the very act of getting into the other person's framework (a paradigm shift)gets thwarted by the very words/deeds under scrutiny.
    one thing should be remembered in any case and that is we should know what is really universal/ trans-personal/transcultural and what is merely historical( no matter how universal one might consider it to be)

    July 28, 2008 at 12:58 pm |
  2. Azima Neshat

    It's a great idea having the compaign like that. we want to know the truth, not misconception about any religion. If anyone really wants to know the truth about Islam and it's message. We should help promote to that compaign.

    July 27, 2008 at 11:18 pm |
  3. Lily

    There are good and bad people in every religion...but for some reason when a horrible event takes place and it involves a muslim, we are all told it was a muslim and are made to believe it was the religion that caused it and not that individual. When a Christian commits murder or whatever, we are never told "Today and Christion murdered......and there has been an a huge controversy on the worshippers of this man's church that he attended for 10 years and supports him".....This is how media has portrayed Muslims for a long time and it isn't fair. If everyone started relating all crimes to Christians that commit crimes too, then maybe this would stop!

    Islam is a religion....not a culture....not a language. So, everyone that has been making comments in reguards to the U.S. needing to make sure these people speak English, etc is just ridiculus. Of course there are those that don't speak it well, but I've only come across a handfull of Muslims that can't speak English and I know over a thousand or more.

    July 27, 2008 at 11:56 am |
  4. M.Smith

    Kudos to the Muslim Community for getting out in the public and even providing a number that anyone can call to clear misconceptions, stereotypes or doubts about Islam and Muslims! Ignorance breeds hatred and I'm sure all those who take the time out to call that number will get some straight facts to even the hardest questions about Islam ! Good job! And is Imam Siraj Wahaj the right man to promote this? He sure is! His experience certainly reflects those of many, many Muslims in America.

    July 26, 2008 at 4:03 pm |
  5. Lori

    And to add to my previous comment....."Wherever there is Islam there is Violence????" Last time I looked around the world is full of violence. I believe it was the U.S. that attacked Iraq, and not vice versa. America has the highest murder rate in the world and I don't think it has much to do with Muslims, other than the thousands of Muslims whom are murdered or torchered simply because of their religious affiliation by ignorant people who have been fueled by hatred. There have been times that I have been sitting peacefully at a restaurant with my children and have been verbally attacked and physically threatened by "Christians" simply because I"m wearing a head scarf. They throw around comments like "Go back to your country" or "Where's your bomb at?". I don't associate all Christians with this behaviour though. Just like I don't associate all Catholics with child molesters or all Jews with Ecstasy smugglers. I think all groups of people have a few "bad seeds" but that doesn't make the whole group bad. The ads aren't in an effort to convert anyone, they are being placed to help people understand our beliefs so that the hatred and discrimination against us can stop. Do you have any idea how it feels to be out enjoying your day with your children and have someone verbally attack you simply because of the way you are dressed? It's sickening and disheartening when your children have to witness such an event. My mind has been opened since I converted to Islam. When I was a "Christian" I discriminated against people as much as most of these people are, especially due to their religions. After converting to Islam, I was taught to be more patient and understanding to others and to accept the diversity of the world. God created us all, not making anyone better than his neighbor. Why can't we just accept that and try to solve the worlds problems together (Global Warming, etc), rather than spending all of our time and energy hating one another?????

    July 26, 2008 at 12:41 pm |
  6. Lori

    I find it ironic that Greg N.C. keeps going back to how English is the language of America yet he has not mastered it himself. I think before someone keeps stressing the importance of the English language, they should first learn how to spell it and articulate it correctly. But aside from that, I am an American, I was born here, my parents were born, my grandparents were born here, etc... I converted to Islam in 2002 and not by force, but by choice. I keep seeing that this country was founded on Christianity, however if you study history, you would discover that this country was founded by IMMIGRANTS who were escaping reigious persecution. Also, the original settlers of America (Native Americans) were not fluent in English, from what I understand. In addition to these facts, I don't understand what learning about Islam has to do with not speaking English. Yes the Quran was originally printed in Arabic, as the Bible was originally written in Hebrew. Umm....I don't see Christians going around speaking Hebrew, do you????? It's okay to speak English and read the Quran, Greg NC. I find it more offensive that I can't walk down the street or even sit in my living room without a Jehovah's Witness or "Christian" attempting to push their religion off on me. However, this is a free country and they have the right to do as they please. Just like everytime I get on the subway and someone is preaching a sermon from the Bible, I may not like it, but I can't prevent them from doing it, nor am I offended by it, because that is their American right of FREEDOM!!!

    July 26, 2008 at 12:30 pm |
  7. Moizuddin Ahmed

    I think its a great idea for the better understanding of Islam, there are lots of misconceptions out there about this religon & people have right to clearify them. I urge that New York subways must not reject these adds on one person's complain.


    July 26, 2008 at 1:49 am |
  8. Sam Az


    I would love to know more about Islam! I dont get it....What is wrong with this advertisement?
    Every one is propagating something...
    grow up congressman 🙂

    July 25, 2008 at 10:28 pm |
  9. Brian Davison

    I think these ads are an excellent idea. We became strong by accepting people and embracing other cultures and religions. I think Mary went to some great lengths in the begining of this article to paste a negative picture of Imam Siraj. This is a classic example of openion based journalism. She highlighted that Imam Siraj was named one of 170 people named in 1993 WTC bombing (a very sensitive topic fo NYC residents), that she was greeted with suspicion, that mosque was a place not very easy to identify, etc. some of these are openions and not facts added in the begining of the article with the purpose of painting a negative picture of Imam Siraj and muslims. On one hand Mary thinks she has the right to purposely paint a wrong picture and influence the decision of her readers before even getting to facts, while on the other hand she promotes silently that giving the right to clear the negative perceptions to the other side is a bad idea. mmm. I see more bad coming out of this article then the ads. Its a free country, If we as christians, or Jews, or hindus, have the right to display our ads, then living in a free and tolerant society demands that we give everyone the same right. After all, its upto the people riding the subway to make that call or not. The ad is simply asking that you call on your free will if you want answers to those questions. If not, no harm done.

    July 25, 2008 at 12:11 am |
  10. K Zabeehullah

    I came to USA in 1993. By living here, I found it a real democratic country by all practical means. Its currency bills bear the motto: "IN GOD WE TRUST". I have not seen any currency bill announcing this trust, NOT EVEN from MAJOR Muslim countries. Muslims do trust in GOD. They are serving a good cause by putting Ad in NY Subway. This will let people understand, Islam, Muslims and "Allah" (Muslims use this instead/for God). The New Yorkers will have an oppurtunity to find the facts and will be able to compare it with the distorted image.
    Br Wahaj is a talented and God Gifted Imam. Him joining this cause will be helpful. I think having this campaign is a excellent idea. I appreciate Mary Snow, CNN Correspondent bringing it up.

    July 24, 2008 at 11:13 pm |
  11. Paula

    Islam is one of the three Abrahamic religions. Most of us are familiar with Judaism, and Christianity, but few are familiar with Islam unless they are Muslim. Since three billion of the world's population practice the Islamic faith, and since Islam is under surveillance, so to speak, by the United States and homeland security, and since it bodes well to understand ones "so-called" enemy's, isn't it in our best interest to understand Islam? Knowledge is the key to understanding. I say the posters should go up, and as one other said, "what are we afraid of?" It sounds like many on this blog would just like to bury their heads in the sand and remain ignorant. The posters get my vote!!

    July 24, 2008 at 11:13 pm |
  12. Sara S

    what happened to freedom of speech? the message is simple.
    It is allowing people to learn the truth.
    Congressman is afraid of what? this only gives every one opportunity to learn the truth if they are interested. We always see ads that we are not interested in but we don't demand they get rejected.

    July 24, 2008 at 10:52 pm |
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