The billboard campaign has gone national. Here's one on a digital billboard outside Phoenix. (Image via ABC15 Arizona.)
In August, one Chicago-based, 501(c)3 organization, Sound Vision, trotted out a bizarre idea when they unveiled a billboard in Chicago featuring words written like chalk on a blackboard: "Hey ISIS
, you suck
!!! From: #ActualMuslims".
This was part of the group's overall efforts to target millennials through juvenile phrasing and the use of a Twitter hashtag. The Islamist group specializes in reaching out to young people, both Muslims and nonbelievers alike. It accomplishes this goal through a variety of methods and mediums that target both children and adults.
First, Sound Vision provides kid-friendly content featuring a puppet called Adam, which it bills as the Islamist version of Mickey Mouse. It then tells people how to use public schools as an excellent place for spreading its Islamist message to children. A large part of this effort involves pressuring educators and school administrators into allowing Islamist content on school grounds, with the end goal being the establishment of an environment in which "everywhere a non-Muslim turns, he notices Islam portrayed in a positive way and gets influenced by it and eventually accepts Islam with Allah's guidance."
In its efforts to reach young adults, Sound Vision successfully utilizes a range of 21st-century technology and techniques. The organization also has a vibrant website, an active social media presence, a number of films, several Islamic educational multimedia programs, and a radio broadcast channel. It also co-sponsors MuslimFest, a two-day festival that features Muslim artists and comedians, a "multicultural bazaar," and a children's carnival.
All of these outreach and educational initiatives are not necessarily bad on their own, and Sound Vision's stated goal of "building bridges of understanding" between Muslims and other communities is ostensibly laudable. However, when the aim behind these efforts is to deliberately obscure the religious-motivations of ISIS fighters, they cannot be taken in good faith as fair, honest, and balanced.
In one case, the group's material has been found to be patently disingenuous. As Middle East Forum president Daniel Pipes put it in 2008, Sound Vision "soar[ed] into flights of fancy about the biography of Muhammad" and made "bizarre and inaccurate references" in its literature claiming that the historic figure was in fact a pacifist who headed a "mass peace movement."
Sound Vision was founded in 1988 by Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, who remains its president to this day. While the non-profit organization has several highly-educated experts on its list of senior staff and dozens of contributors for its media outlets, Mujahid is most definitely the face of the organization, appearing on shows like The O'Reilly Factor.
While Mujahid currently focuses on the peaceful elements of Islam, he has certainly emphasized its violent nature in the past. Mujahid was formerly the president of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a radical Islamist organization with links to the Jamaat-e-Islami terrorist group. As noted by journalist Steven Emerson, Mujahid spoke at an event in Columbus, Ohio, in which he described the importance of violence in Islam. Specifically, Mujahid uses the term "qital," alternately translated as "combat," "battle," or "fighting." Crucially, the event was in 1995, while Mujahid was also serving as the president of Sound Vision.
Sound Vision's ties to terrorists don't end with Jamaat-e-Islami. One of the keynote speakers at a Sound Vision event in 2015 was Siraj Wahhaj, an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Wahhaj has repeatedly called for Sharia law to supplant democratic law in Western countries like the US. The inclusion of such an individual speaks volumes about Sound Vision's goals and ideals.
The event in question was a "Stand with the Prophet in Love and Peace against Hate and Terror" conference in Garland, Texas. The event revolved around speeches related to the life of Muhammad. While the event was billed as being open to the public, some members of the press were inexplicably barred from attending. Moreover, journalists that were able to get into the event were only allowed to cover the first 20 minutes.
Sound Vision bills its "Stand with the Prophet" initiative as a nationwide event, and has held similar conferences in both North Carolina and Florida. Sometimes, it receives the organizational aid and PR help of other Islamist groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as was the case with the Texas event. These events are similar to Sound Vision's content regarding Masjids (Muslim community centers) and effective Muslim parenting, in that both are geared more toward fellow members of the faith rather than non-Muslims. That being said, the strict limitations on press coverage are highly suspicious for an organization that is purported about "building bridges of understanding."
Sound Vision gives off the initial impression that it is an inclusive organization that embraces Western values. However, dig deeper into its inaccurate content and associations with radicals and it becomes apparent the group is not as moderate as its anti-ISIS billboard suggests.
Levi Y. Jenkins is a freelance journalist working out of the Washington, DC, area. This article was sponsored by Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.