Open Dialog: Addressing Perceptions of Islam

The controversy over the proposed site of the Park51 Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero has exposed fault lines in American society. The project has inspired a fervent national debate about religious freedom and tolerance and protecting the sanctity of a site where thousands perished in the World Trade Center attacks.

According to a Time magazine poll conducted last month, 61 percent of 1,000 adults surveyed opposed the project, while 26 percent supported it. Just 23 percent said it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44 percent said it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11. Additionally, 46 percent of those polled believed Islam was more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against non-believers, although only 37 percent said they knew a Muslim American.

Adweek editors Eleftheria Parpis and Brian Morrissey challenged over 30 agencies to apply their communications skills to address the issue. Five did so.

The brief: change the perceptions of ordinary Americans toward Islam and Muslims, and encourage dialog between those who oppose and support the building of the community center. Participants were free to choose whatever media they felt would be most effective in communicating their ideas. Here are the agencies’ visions and the summaries of their strategic thinking, in their own words.








Xenophobia has long been an issue in America, but it wasn’t until 9/11 and now Park51 that anti-Muslim feelings really surfaced.

Most opposed to Park51 agree that because this is America, there’s a right to build an Islamic Community Center; however, its proximity to Ground Zero is where the sensitivity lies.

So the question shifts from should Park51 be built to where should Park51 be built? How far is far enough? How close is too close? It becomes subjective and complex.

A reframing of “Ground Zero” is necessary in order for both sides to see the big picture.

On 9/11, Islamic extremists attacked something much larger than the WTC; they attacked a state of mind. They attacked what America stands for. Our freedom. Our ideology. Our beliefs.

On those grounds, Ground Zero is really everywhere Americans and their ideals are. It’s an omnipresent place and space.

In order to stay true to what America stands for, we need to encourage freedom of religion wherever that may be. By repositioning the issue, we will encourage a fresh, constructive and productive dialog.

One tactical idea: we could hold a nationwide event that demonstrates “Ground Zero is everywhere.” Participants across the country would raise two lights into the night sky, just like the two beams that rise from Ground Zero.

A new perspective will illuminate a difference between terrorists and Muslims while communicating the importance of tolerance and freedom for everyone in this country.


We are more alike than different. Religion is a hot, polarizing topic. So in order to make people more tolerant of people with different religious beliefs, let’s not talk about religion.

Let’s not talk about what separates us, but rather what we share in common.

We are all humans. And human nature applies to us all. If a Muslim stubs his toe on the kitchen table leg, he winces in pain. If a Catholic or Protestant stubs his toe on the kitchen table leg, he winces in pain.
So the idea is to show many ways in which we are all alike as people, the quirkier and more everyday examples, the better. (For example, the text on the ad shown below reads, “Jay is Catholic. Hassan is Muslim. Both are terrible drummers.”)

These scenarios allow us all to relate to them while adding a touch of humor. And laughter is religion agnostic. We could showcase these similarities through entertaining Web videos, TV spots, or print. We could drive people to the Web site, where people could find out (the facts) about different religions.