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Toronto-area Muslims working to change religion’s public perception

Group of Mercy launched a TTC campaign in Toronto to change notions that many Canadians may have of Muslims.

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When she moved here eight years ago from Kuwait, Dina Kamal knew she would attract attention with her hijab. Ms. Kamal, now 30, says some people refused to talk to her and she felt watched, "like I'm coming from Mars," wherever she went.

"I felt like if people are already looking at me, what if I act with them in a nice way?"

While being cognizant of the image she presented in her private life, she co-founded Group of Mercy to more publicly change notions that many Canadians may have of Muslims. The group launches a TTC campaign this week to coincide with the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims refrain from food, sex and harmful talk from sunrise to sundown.

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While Ms. Kamal believes misperceptions of Islam are largely propagated through negative media coverage, a particular nadir came in 2012 after the infamous Innocence of Muslims video offended and sparked outrage across the Muslim world.

"Many Muslims overreacted," she says. "The Prophet's reaction wouldn't be that way … People insulted him sometimes and he ignored them totally because he was focused on the big picture."

She brainstormed with a friend, Mahmoud Abou-Elneel, about what they could do to show a different – truer – view of their religion. Their first initiative was to distribute flowers on Mother's Day, with Quranic verses attached about the value of family. The initiative grew and soon the pair were thinking bigger.

"I thought it might be impossible," Ms. Kamal says. "But if you have a goal and you want to reach it, you're gonna reach it. This is what I believe."

While last year's inaugural campaign saw 85 ads run inside TTC cars and platforms, and focused on messages of compassion, this year's, on station platform posters, will focus on practical advice. "We want to show that Islam is not just a religion in a mosque. It's a way of life."

One of the posters quotes the Prophet Mohammed as saying "Do not waste water even if you are standing at the banks of a flowing river." Others cover finances, relationships, community, and health.

The campaign costs a total of $10,000, which was sponsored in part by Salaheddin Islamic Centre in Scarborough, and through individual donations.

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While some have questioned the allocation of such funds toward what essentially amounts to PR, rather than toward charity efforts in Syria, for example, Ms. Kamal defended their focus by saying other organizations do that and she contributes, but Muslims also need to spend money on building a better community where they live.

"I shouldn't just be caring about back home and forget about the land I'm staying in," she said.

The ads can be found at Queen, Spadina, Eglinton, Yorkdale, Sheppard, Finch, Kennedy and Islington subway stations beginning this week and until the end of Ramadan.

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