Sept. 9, 2010— -- A controversial new ad on New York City's buses depicts a plane flying toward the Twin Towers and the words "Why There?" over a rendering of the proposed Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero.
Yet, that same fleet is also running an ad seemingly in contradiction. "Muslims for Peace," it proclaims, on a hundred buses throughout the city.
As debate intensifies over the lower Manhattan location, a cabbie is stabbed in an apparent hate crime, and members of a church plan to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11, a Muslim group is going door to door across the country with a direct message about faith.
Along with the bus ads, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community have handed out about 250,000 "Muslims for Peace" brochures in locations as diverse as Michigan's Rochester Hills suburb, a busy street corner in San Francisco, and a state fair in Wisconsin.
"A minority have hijacked the message of Islam," said Naseem Mahdi, national vice president of the community. "The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful."
The message in the two-page, double-sided brochure is conveyed with the imagery of a dove, the word "terrorism" crossed out and a verse from the Koran: "Whosoever killed a person ... It shall be as if he had killed all mankind." A toll-free number and Web link is included as well.
This distribution is one among several outreach efforts by many Muslim groups, including open houses at mosques, community service projects planned for Sept. 11, and a public service announcement launched just this week featuring Muslims of diverse backgrounds. Three more PSA launched last week, one of which features Muslim first responders of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Muslim Sect has Deep Roots in U.S. History
Still, the direct interaction by handing out brochures is unique, according to Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national advocacy organization. She said she had not heard of a similar effort.
"It's a really positive thing they're doing," said Lekovic. "They're putting a face on what it means to be a Muslim and putting themselves out there, engaging with people."
The Ahmadiyya community launched its campaign just two months after a May bomb scare in Times Square in New York City, with six members standing in the middle of Times Square handing out the flyers. Salaam Bhatti, 24, said that the majority of people he approached accepted the brochure with the phrase "Muslims for Peace" in large letters across the cover.
"They kind of do a double take when they see the words 'Muslims' and 'peace' in the same sentence," said Bhatti. "They seemed really intrigued by the message."
He recalled one man who looked at the paper, forcefully said "No!" and handed it back. "To each his own," said Bhatti, with a laugh.
This campaign may be new, but the message is not, said Bhatti. "We've been doing this for 120 years."
It was in 1889 that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was founded in India. The minority sect differs from the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam and now numbers about 160 million members in 195 countries. And it has deep roots in America, going back 90 years. The group said it is the oldest Muslim community in the United States, with an estimated 15,000 members.
Mahdi said the Ahmadiyya community has rejected terrorism since its founding. As explained in the brochure, the founder taught the Ahmadi to reject a "jihad by the sword" and replace it with a non-violent "jihad of the pen."
Even as they espouse peace and non-violence, the Ahmadiyya face persecution, in countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The May bombings of two of the community's mosques in Lahore, Pakistan claimed 86 lives. The Pakistani government denied humanitarian assistance to 500 Ahmadiyya families that were victims of the recent devastating flooding, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Most recently, a Philadelphia man was gunned down in mid-August in his native Pakistan, the second Ahmadi killed that week.
Rule of Law Guiding Principle, Sect Says
Here in the United States, the community faces some hostility from mainstream Muslim sects, according to Mahdi. And the group also faces the larger conflicted view of Islam in America. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, nearly 50 percent of Americans view Islam unfavorably. In addition, 55 percent lack a basic understanding of the religion and half do not personally know anyone who is a Muslim.
The Ahmadi faithful believe it is the responsibility of Muslims to change the negative perceptions of their faith. Dr. Waseem Sayed, a spokesperson for the community, also stressed that following the law of the land is a religious duty.
"We say Islam requires living according to the law of where you live," said Sayed. "In Islam, there is no conflict between 'Are you a Muslim?' and 'Are you an American?'"
What follows is a separation of mosque and state. Without offering comment on where the Park51 community center should be located, Sayed said it is a civic issue.
"This is not about the right of a religious group to build a place of worship," said Sayed. "In Islam, there is a stress on the rights of your neighbor. You have to take into account the thoughts of your neighbors."
Winning people over to an understanding of their faith is what Ahmadiyya community members hope to achieve through their door-to-door campaign. Their plan is to reach 2 percent of the U.S. population every year through the "Muslims for Peace" brochures and interfaith meetings in local communities. A print run of the brochures just delivered another 250,000 copies each in English and Spanish to the group's 70 local chapters.
After Bhatti's experience distributing brochures in Times Square and to his law school classmates and professors, he and his friends are discussing the next location, perhaps at a busy weekend flea market.
"Jihad is not about killing others," said Bhatti, as he echoed the words of his faith's founder. "You have to be able to talk intellectually with everybody and win over their hearts."