They’ve been called inflammatory, provocative, and controversial. Rashida Yosufzai investigates the religious billboards sparking debate between Muslims and Christians.
In late May, signs were placed on billboards in major Sydney roads, specifically chosen for maximum exposure. Organised and privately funded by an Islamic group called “MyPeace” the billboards advertise Muslim beliefs, including a claim that has upset the Christian community – that Jesus, like Mohamed, was a prophet of Islam. Representatives of Sydney’s Christian community have said the campaign messages were inflammatory and provocative.
But the person behind MyPeace, 29-year-old Diaa Mohamed, says the aim of the campaign was to educate the public about Islam, not to offend anyone.
“The whole purpose was to educate Australia about what Islam is, so if I’ve made a few people think about [that] and … change their views of Islam, then all for the better,” he says.
But offend it did. Only a day after it was raised, the hotline on the Rozelle billboard was torn, and a few days after, a light box on this Rosehill billboard was shattered.
Within a week of the billboards, a mimic website appropriating the MyPeace campaign signs was launched. Registered to a group called the Seek and Save Ministry, its purpose is to provide a biblical response to the pro-Islamic messages on the MyPeace site.
The Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth, says it’s understandable for people to feel offended by the signs but he supports and will defend the right to free speech.
“Some people will be troubled to see one of their deeply held beliefs criticised or denied on a billboard and that is, I guess, confronting. But that’s the nature of the world we live in and if we Christians are confronted we need to get over it and get on living in a multi-faith society.”
Dr Christina Ho, Senior Lecturer in social and political change at UTS, says this case is about broader political issues, and it may be just be the medium that is affecting the message.
“In the initial debates it seems like this has been seen as a provocative move, and there have been some very predictable responses, but perhaps a billboard is a bit of a blunt instrument to make a point – you’ve only got a few words to make a point.
“These billboards are part of a very big debate that’s not under the control of Australian Muslims or anyone here, because they’re part of these global debates that are presenting a ‘clash of civilisations’ [arguement]. It was always going to be difficult for one sort of initiative to try and go against that, and with billboards, you’re not going to have the space to say anything complex or subtle.”
But as a new billboard shows, MyPeace’s call for debate has already been heeded. On June 10, a new billboard on the M4, funded by individuals in the Christian community, was erected. The Aussie Christians group says the billboard will have a fresh slogan every week, mindful of keeping a friendly tone.
Ian Powell is an evangelist from the City Bible Forum who helped organise the funding for the billboard. He says the opportunity for a religious debate was too good to refuse.
“A few of us who have a particular love and interest for Muslims and [to try] to be of use to them, thought this was too good an opportunity to not engage in a discussion. Because Christians are fairly and understandably a little hurt. I disagree with the idea that MyPeace shouldn’t have put them up – that’s [the brilliance] of this country. But the feeling – to call him a prophet – it’s a bit like someone who says to a devout Muslim, ‘I think Mohammed was a great leader, a great social reformer.’ But when they say he’s just a man, like any other man, and God isn’t involved in any way, I think Muslims wouldn’t be happy.”
Powell says after seeing the billboard reducing the status of Jesus to a prophet, members of the Christian community united to address the issue with a right of reply.
Powell condemns the acts of vandalism.
“I don’t know who did it and they should be ashamed of themselves. I bet they wouldn’t have gone to church, more likely a redneck than someone who’s come from prayers.”
While this may be the first time billboards are being used for religious debates of this kind in Australia, it’s certainly not uncommon overseas.
The idea behind the Islamic billboards was inspired by similar campaigns in the U.S. in 2008, where an Islamic group called GainPeace put up signs on major Chicago highways. Those too were met with a similar reception, with graffiti sprayed across some banners.
And it isn’t just exclusive to believers. Even non-faith groups have plunged into slogan controversy.
In 2008, an atheist campaign endorsed by Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Association ran bus ads in Britain, in an apparent response to counter evangelical Christian advertising. The campaign attracted worldwide media attention. But an attempt by the Atheist Foundation of Australia to bring the idea home was unsuccessful.
Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor based in Revesby. A keen debater of theology, he says it’s healthy for differences to come out in the open.
“Multiculturalism can be a …smokescreen to actually marginalise religious people, in other words, Christian and Muslims and [other religious groups] have to pretend they’re saying the same thing. And I don’t think that’s healthy. I think it’s far healthier to say, ‘no, we differ and this is why’….and this should not be stirred up,” he says.
Bishop Forsyth agrees.
“There are differences. There are profound differences, and the fact is the Christian and the Islamic faiths have contradictory views on a number of things, and that’s just the way thing are. We’re going to have to find a way to be respectful and peaceful. It’s just like there are political billboards and there are commercial billboards … as long as it doesn’t get overheated [I see no problem in these debates],” Forsyth says.
“We’re all big boys and girls,” says Powell. “We want to talk and we want a dialogue and Australians on the whole are frightened to talk, to pick up a bible. So I say full marks to MyPeace for doing that.”
Despite the public backlash and criticism, Mohammed says the majority of people responding to the hotline have been encouraging. He says he’s even had an apology from the man who vandalised the Rozelle poster.
“The majority of people have been positive, and it was meant to be thought provoking. I didn’t think we’d get this much negativity or any at all, but the vast majority have been positive. The atheist community have been positive and intrigued. Some members of the Christian community have been negative but the majority – from priest to pastors – have been positive.
And while unconventional, billboards can serve as an alternative medium for marginalised groups to talk to the broader community, without media involvement.
“I think the billboards are a creative response to a lot of frustration that’s felt by Australians Muslims, that they don’t really have a voice in public debates. They’re certainly not able to have a lot of airtime in the mainstream media and for every debate that’s framed around the vilification of Muslims I think they feel like they don’t have the space to talk about their issues, except for when it’s just to defend themselves.”
“So I think in a lot of ways this was an act of desperation to find some other avenue to have [their] voice heard, and it’s a creative one, because they’re trying to reach out to people directly, as opposed to mediated accounts,” Ho says.
Scepticism of the media seemingly kept many members of the Islamic community from being involved in this story. Outside a mosque in Auburn, several Muslims declined to comment or to be filmed. When asked about the MyPeace campaign, some said they were unaware of the billboards.
But for most ordinary Australians, conversations around religion are happening on another, more everyday level. Sydney taxi driver Shuja Ismail, who also declined to be filmed, said he often talked to passengers about his Islamic faith.
It’s left to be seen whether billboards – more often used to sell us consumer products – are the appropriate avenue for religious debates.
Powell is keen to take the billboard conversation to the next level – inviting MyPeace and its founder to a public debate.
“[We’d like] to have some public discussions, which we hope all Australians would be interested in,” he says.
Which is exactly what MyPeace had been aiming for.