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December 21, 2006

Ads Hope to Dispel Fears of Muslims

By KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press Writer Wed Dec 20, 2:21 AM ET The small beige signs bearing swirling, black Arabic script appear all over town on buses and at colleges. One panicked bus rider wondered if they were secret messages from terrorists. Should the FBI be contacted? What do they mean? Actual translation: "Paper or plastic?" The signs are part of a campaign by the Virginia Interfaith Center, aimed at dispelling some of the public's fears about the Muslim community. Organizers hope to eventually expand the program statewide. "As soon as people see Arabic, they immediately make an association with terrorism," said the Rev. C. Douglas Smith, executive director of the interfaith center. "That's probably because since 9/11, not only is fear overwhelming us, but that's how we're being trained to think." The signs were placed in all 170 Greater Richmond Transit Company buses on Nov. 27 and many buses will continue to display them at least through the end of January. The signs, designed by The Martin Agency, have also been posted at the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University. Besides the "paper or plastic" sign, there are two others — one which is the Arabic version of the "I'm a little tea pot" rhyme and the other roughly translating to the English equivalent of "rock, paper, scissors." Accompanying the translations at the bottom of the posters are comments such as, "Misunderstanding can make anything scary," and "What did you think it said?" The transit company has already fielded several calls from concerned riders, said Gretchen Schoel, executive director of A More Perfect Union, a project of the Virginia Interfaith Center that is spearheading the ads. One woman Schoel described as a well-educated university employee placed a frantic call to the bus company's manager, suggesting the FBI be called in to investigate. Even after the signs' English translations were explained to her, she remained concerned that they might contain secret messages, Schoel said. "It's so great that we're getting feedback, even if it is negative, because it shows that people are looking, they're thinking," Schoel said. "And it really proves the point that this script right here conjures up certain ideas in our heads that we have to work with." Bias against the Muslim community is a continuing problem across the country, said Imad Damaj, president of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs. "There's so many lazy, unexamined assumptions about all of us and how we react to people," Damaj said. "We need to challenge ourselves." (more) ___ On the Net: A More Perfect Union: Virginia Interfaith Center:

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