PATERSON, N.J. —When Muslim extremists hijacked planes to use as missiles against New York and Washington, they in effect hijacked Islam, said Kashif Chaudhry, an Englewood, N.J., doctor.
So for the past year, almost every weekend, he and thousands of other Muslim-Americans across the country have fought to get it back — and reverse a popular belief among Westerners that their religion promotes violence. They wage this public relations war with advertisements on the sides of buses, brochures handed out on street corners and simple conversation with anyone who'll listen.
On Sunday, the Muslims for Peace movement's North Jersey chapter was in Paterson, N.J., at the corner of Market and Main streets passing out pamphlets that read "Love for all — Hatred for none." In a month or so, they'll likely fan out to Bergen County, perhaps Englewood, Chaudhry said.
"I want to change the perception out there," said Anwar Muhammad, one of the more than dozen volunteers, mostly from the same Clifton, N.J., mosque, standing at the Paterson intersection. "Most Muslims are not violent and proclaiming jihad."
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The campaign, run by the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, aims to counter negative generalizations about Muslims that have led to such turmoil as the protests over building a mosque near Ground Zero.
Chaudhry, 28, said the timing of their effort with the recent clashes between dictators and pro-democracy protesters across the Middle East was coincidence. But the relevance is there. Just as the protesters retaliate against oppressive regimes, so has the Ahmadiyya sect endured the spurn of intolerance, Chaudhry said. According to the volunteers, its followers must address themselves as non-Muslims in Pakistan or face three years in jail. Saudi Arabia refuses them pilgrimage access to Mecca. Many have been killed by the Taliban for their non-traditional beliefs — namely that church and state to be separate.
Here, also, their brochures — adorned with a dove and the word "terrorism" crossed out — are not always well received.
"My job is to deliver a message of peace," said Muhammad, who emigrated from Pakistan about six years ago. "If someone is not ready to accept it, that has to be their choice."
Much rarer are the times — maybe "one in a hundred," Muhammad said — when a connection with a passer-by is made. Muhammad remembers a 10-minute conversation with a man last Sunday about the Quran's portrayal of Jesus as a prophet.
"He was surprised to hear that," said the 30-year-old computer programmer from Parsippany, N.J.
Eddy Pepitoni, a 50-year-old Irish Catholic from Prospect Park, N.J., also seemed impressed after a brief chat with Chaudhry. He agreed that "peace is what we definitely need." Then, before continuing on his way across Main Street, he held up the brochure with the dove to add: "The true terrorists in this county are the ones against this."