Amid the profusion of billboards along Southern California freeways, motorists are being startled by a new one. It features seven smiling faces of various ethnicities, with one, a woman wearing a black headscarf, holding a small American flag.
Underneath, in bold letters, are the words, "Even a smile is Charity -- a message from your Muslim neighbor." The sponsor of the soft-sell ad is the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the billboards are indicative of its increasing sophistication in presenting the benign and nonthreatening face of Islam.
The cost of each billboard rental ranges from $5,000 to $8,000 per month, and so far, only three carry the "smile" message. One is located near LAX and the other two are in Orange County.
But if they are deemed effective, similar signs are planned for other American cities, said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper in Washington.
The concept was developed by the Southern California chapter of CAIR, whose public relations coordinator, Sabiha Khan, said the slogan was based on a saying by the Prophet Muhammad, "Your smile for your brother is charity." Different positive messages will be posted each month, she said.
The higher profile comes even as CAIR weathers criticisms that it has served as a platform for people and groups that support terror against Israeli citizens. CAIR denies the charges -- and keeps smiling.
Over the past year, and especially since Sept. 11, CAIR has evolved into an effective voice of the Muslim and Arab communities in the United States. Taking a leaf from Jewish defense organizations, any real or perceived slur or discriminatory act against a Muslim is instantly met with protests and barrages of news releases to the media.