A Reflection on the Ask-a-Muslim Billboard Controversy

If you were from Columbus Ohio, you would know that Cleveland Avenue is a dangerous stretch of road. It has had the rather dubious distinction of being rated the “most dangerous intersection in Columbus”[1] for several years in a row. From 2008-2010, there were 249 crashes alone[2] some of them merely fender benders; but there were others that were sadly quite serious.

Needless to say, whenever I approach Cleveland Avenue my heart beats just a little bit faster; especially if I am coming off the exit ramp from the freeway. Merging into the heavy oncoming traffic can be exceedingly difficult, and if you want to turn left at the light, you are taking your life in your hands. I like to say a little prayer every time I get off that exit ramp.

Earlier this spring, I was on that dreaded merge lane with a prayer on my lips when something caught my eye that made me fall silent. There was a new sign on the enormous billboard behind the McDonalds. It was in a dark green color, and it had the words “Jesus is Muslim. (yes we used the present tense.)” I admit I was shocked when I saw that, and I was fortunate the traffic was light that afternoon or I might have ended up as another statistic! Fortunately, the light was red, so I was able to examine the billboard in more detail. The sign changed over to “A Muslim is someone who submits to God’s will.” and then “Muslims love Jesus too.” As the light turned green and I went on my way, my initial reaction was an instant and definite approval of the billboard. I thought it was nice to see a sign promoting belief in God, even if it wasn’t my particular Christian worldview. I resolved to take a look at the website it was promoting; ask-a-muslim.com.

As a Christian who has a tremendous amount of respect for the Islamic faith, that was a real priority for me. When my first available opportunity came later that night, I investigated the website thoroughly and found a wonderful wealth of content there. I realized that one could learn a lot about what is perhaps the most misunderstood religion in the world from this source. At the end of the day, I heartily approved of both the billboard and the website.

So imagine my surprise when I turned on the local news that same night and saw that a local Christian minister was offended by the content of the billboard and was planning to have a protest underneath it that weekend! He said, “The ‘Jesus is Muslim’ one is just really the one that jumped out at me, because I saw that, number one, as a blatant lie.”[3]

Before the big protest, he wrote a press release defending his actions, saying that: “Although we support the Islamic community’s right to free speech, as well as their right to post messages on billboards, we do not support the hi-jacking of the name of Jesus Christ in their attempt to lure uninformed Christians into their religion.” By this time, the story was all over the internet and everyone seemed to be weighing in. For example, another group, Operation Save America, was even less diplomatic about the billboard, writing on their website, “It appears that the Muslim community in Columbus, Ohio, is becoming increasingly arrogant in spreading its monstrous religion, with its false book, and its false prophet, right in the face of the Church of Jesus Christ in Columbus. It has purchased space on three billboards around the city spreading lies about the Gospel of Christ.”

With each article and each line of protest that I read, I became increasingly saddened with how so many members of the Christian community, especially the ones in my city, were handling the situation. They claim to be “offended” over the “divisive” statements on the billboards, and yet their reactions were equally as offensive and divisive, if not more so. I wondered whether they actually read the sign or look at the website, or whether they were just looking to pick a fight?

As a Christian myself, I admit I was rather surprised to see the words “Jesus is Muslim.” It may not have been the best choice of words for a billboard, but if one had just waited until the sign reloaded, the next thing it said was, “A Muslim is someone who submits to God’s will.” The sign was not intended to be offensive, but rather to show that Jesus is important to Islam too.

Now, to those of you who are not familiar with my city of Columbus, there is another side of this story worth mentioning. Just a couple of years ago, there were billboards all across town promoting atheism. They said things like: “Reason over faith always”, “I can be good without God”, “I can see beauty in the universe without God”, “Personal gods just don’t compute” and I find myself wondering, where were all the Christians then? Where were the protests, the prayer vigils and the words of outrage all over the internet? Why is it that so many of us in the Christian community are all too eager to pick a fight with adherents of other religions, but are utterly silent when certain atheist groups make a mockery of people of all faiths? Could it be that we are fighting the wrong battles, addressing the wrong issues?

In the end, the billboard was taken down and, sadly, I don’t think it occupied that space for more than a week.  The person who organized the protest seemed quite pleased with the results, saying, “We just showed up.  That’s it.  We showed up on the streets and called them liars.  They took down the sign. We believe in free-speech.  We made them blink.  They took the sign down.  Light always causes darkness to flee.”[4]

Is causing a deeper rift and adding to the tensions between our two faith communities really a victory? Is this how Jesus would have us love our neighbors?

In reacting to all of the controversy, one Muslim who was interviewed on television said the purpose of the billboards was ‘to get people to ask questions’ and to start ‘a conversation on God and faith.’ In a world that is wracked with religious tension and violence, I feel that this is a conversation we should all be seeking to have. We don’t need any more protests and intolerance; there has been far too much of that already. What we need is conversation and prayer. In a pluralistic society, we need better conversation between our two faiths so that we can come to a place of greater understanding and respect for one another. In a world where so many are persecuted for their faith, we need prayer for a spirit of greater ecumenism between our two faith communities so that we can lead the way in moving towards peace. Perhaps then we would all be better people of God, and we will see true submission to the will of God.

 

  1. “Cleveland Avenue and Morse Road dubbed most dangerous intersection,” Columbus Business First, last modified November 30, 2011, accessed November 24, 2014, http://www.bizjournals.com/columbus/news/2011/11/30/cleveland-avenue-and-morse-road-dubbed.html.
  2. Columbus Business First, “Cleveland Avenue and Morse Road dubbed most dangerous intersection.”
  3. Will Lerner, “Billboards proclaiming ‘Jesus is Muslim’ getting people upset,” Yahoo News, March 31, 2014, accessed November 24, 2014, http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/odd-news/billboards-proclaiming-%E2%80%98jesus-is-muslim%E2%80%99-getting-people-upset-214308657.html.
  4. Coach Dave Daubenmire, “Jesus Is Muslim” Billboards Taken Down–Here’s How,” Western Journalism, April 7, 2014, accessed November 24, 2014, http://www.westernjournalism.com/jesus-muslim-billboard-taken/. 

Image Source: Lord Jim

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3 thoughts on “A Reflection on the Ask-a-Muslim Billboard Controversy

  1. Neil, I share your sadness at the response of local community members who were unable to see the billboard as an invitation for conversation and greater understanding. Unfortunately, this is something that has been happening all over for several years, and I’m interested in the continued use of billboards precisely because they are often so controversial. They also continue to be a great way to reach a huge amount of people who wouldn’t necessarily be looking at the same websites or news. For the record, the atheist billboard campaign you refer to from a few years ago was also the subject of Church protest, and was moved to another location. I hope that in Columbus as well as in other cities where this is happening, people can start to see the invitation being presented rather than a challenge.

  2. Thank you so much for this article, highlighting several core controversies: the tensions “between religions” — and the tensions between “religions and no religion” — or perhaps “the tensions between religion and rationality”.

    I am currently involved in a conversation sponsored by The Great Transition Initiative — http://greattransition.org/ — where for the last month, we have been discussing the role of religion in a world transitioning to what they call “the planetary phase of civilization”.

    This has been a vibrant and well-informed discussion, considering all these questions. Is religion itself being “globalized”? I am inclined to say “yes” — because the process of interfaith encounter is happening everywhere, and that conversation drives the emergence of a shared understanding that crosses borders. Religion becomes less about my religion versus yours, but rather the role of faith and spirit in guiding and healing the planet — and how we can pursue this broad goal together.

    Scientists, atheists, spiritual-but-not-religious and believers of every stripe are interacting today in a huge and evolving marketplace of ideas. For me, this vast global process of intercultural encounter is a strong and healthy evolutionary dynamic, pushing towards the emergence of simple and highly ethical ideas, with buy-in and support from cultures everywhere.

    Perhaps it is true that we need both “rational” and “irrational” influences in a fully healthy culture. It seems to me that all of this coming together in one global creative crucible carries high promise for a future that can be “guided by the will of God” in a highly informed way, that does not invoke conflict with the major religions. In a world that needs all the grace and balanced thinking humanity can bring to it , neither does this emerging new world view conflict with the healthy instinct for rational thinking .

  3. Neil, thanks for this excellent article! As a non religious person married to a devout Muslim, I am all too familiar with the lack of understanding many people have about Islam. We need more respectful discourse, not protests, generalizations and intimidations. Ignorance breeds fear and I am excited that the Christian community has someone like you calling for mutual understanding! Lots of love to you and the Mrs.!

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