TAMPA — The timing of the billboards could not have been better.
Over the last month, in three locations around Tampa Bay, the Islamic Circle of North America has plastered its name and message on big blue signs beside this number: 877-WHY-ISLAM.
The signs are part of a larger campaign that has placed 135 billboards alongside highways nationwide, but their appearance here came a critical time for Muslim leaders as they tried to steer the conversation about Islam toward education and tolerance, and away from hate and misinformation.
And since the signs went up, calls to the advocacy group’s information hotline have increased by 300 percent, officials say.
Those dialing 877-WHY-ISLAM ask a whole swath of questions.
What do Muslims think of Jesus?
Do women have rights in the Islamic faith?
And why hasn’t anyone denounced those terrorists?
“While on the phone, we usually just ask them to Google it,” ICNA volunteer and campaign coordinator Ferhan Parvaize said of that last question.
Callers are surprised to find that, in fact, plenty of Muslim leaders have spoken against the attacks in Paris and California, carried out by extremists pledging allegiance to the terror group the Islamic State.
“The main goal is the education piece of it,” Parvaize said. “Because of Islamophobia, we’ve become the talk of the mainstream.”
On Nov. 13, the day of the deadly Paris attacks that killed 130 people, two Pinellas County mosques received threatening voicemails from a caller who said he would firebomb the locations and kill everyone on site. In the weeks that followed, organizations like the Florida Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations fielded hundreds of calls from concerned Muslims who feared for their safety.
In December, two Muslim women reported being targets of possible hate crimes outside mosques in Tampa.
Naeem Baig, ICNA president, said the rhetoric coming from some politicians as the presidential election approaches has only complicated their efforts.
Only six to 10 percent of the calls are negative, ICNA estimated. More than 50,000 people have requested copies of the Quran.
Two of the billboards tower in Tampa, one on E. 40th Street E and another on E. 50th Street. In Pinellas County, the third board stands on U.S. 19 south of 150th Avenue.
Parvaize, the campaign coordinator, worked with the Islamic societies in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to coordinate the billboards.
The idea for the campaign, which focuses more specifically on the prophet Muhammad, began about a year ago, soon after the fatal terrorist attack on the staff of the Parisian satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. It had published a controversial cartoon featuring Muhammad.
In 2016, ICNA plans to focus its educational efforts on informing people about the Quran.
“We are part of this society, we are part of the larger community, and American Muslims are professionals, doctors, athletes, they are all over,” Baig said. “They are part of the American fabric. They add this color, this beauty, to American society and culture.”
Contact Katie Mettler at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.