August 15th, 2011
11:23 AM ET
By Liane Membis, CNN
(CNN) – Want to learn more about Islam? There’s a hotline for that. And, through the end of the month, lots of roadside billboards to get the word out about it.
Two 48 foot-tall billboards towering over the New Jersey Turnpike bear the messages "877-Why-Islam — Get the Facts” and “Ramadan — 1.57 Billion Celebrating. Find Out Why.”
The signs are part of the Islamic Circle of North America’s 1-877-Why-Islam outreach project, established in 1999 with an eye toward educating Americans about Islam and Muslims.
The New Jersey billboards are two of more than 50 signs that are lining highways across the nation during August, as Muslims mark the holy month of Ramadan.
The Why Islam Project has also used television and newspaper ads and community booths to promote the hotline. Its website, WhyIslam.org, features information about the religion and a tool for users to arrange tours of local mosques.
Ashfaq Parkar, the coordinator of the Why Islam Project, said the hotline, which gets around 600 calls a month, is aimed at dispelling myths about Islam.
“What we are doing is trying to provide people with the means of obtaining accurate information about our religion,” Parkar said. “There are a lot of people that feel that Muslims need to step out and assure that their religion is appropriately represented. If we don’t do it, someone else will, and there’s a good chance that we will be misrepresented.”
Calls to the toll-free 24/7 hotline are answered by volunteers from the Muslim community who are concerned about the image of Islam and want to help improve relations with other Americans.
Volunteers for the hotline receive extensive training but are not required to be scholars or religious leaders.
The most frequently asked question: What does Islam say about terrorism?
Questions and calls that link the religion to violence surged after the 9/11 attacks, Parkar said.
“When we get these kind of calls some people get confrontational or angry on the phone,” Parkar said. “But we welcome that.”
“The fact they are calling and are willing to engage in discussion means something to us," he said. "They have concerns, they want a dialogue. We listen and we give that to them.”
“We just want to educate people and show the American community that we are a community to be accepted not detested.”
The billboards will remain up until the end of the Ramadan, known for its daytime fasts, on August 29.
“It’s a time when the general community around us is curious about fasting, our religion, our beliefs,” Parkar said.
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