- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

RICHMOND — The small beige signs bearing black Arabic script have been appearing all over town on buses and at colleges.

“Are they secret messages from terrorists?” one panicked bus rider asked. Should the FBI be contacted? What do they mean?

Actual translation: “Paper or plastic?”

The signs are part of a campaign by A More Perfect Union, a program of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, and are aimed at dispelling some of the public’s fears about the Muslim community.

Organizers hope to expand the program statewide.

“As people see Arabic, they immediately make an association with terrorism,” said the Rev. C. Douglas Smith, executive director of the interfaith center. “That’s probably because since 9/11, not only is fear overwhelming us, but that’s how we’re being trained to think.”

The signs were placed in all 170 Greater Richmond Transit Co. buses in Richmond on Nov. 27 and will remain there through December, though many buses will continue to display them at least through January.

The signs, designed by the Martin Agency, also have been posted at the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Along with the “paper or plastic” sign, others translate to “I’m a little teapot” and “Rock, paper, scissors.”

The English translations are printed in small text on the bottom of the posters, next to comments such as “Misunderstanding can make anything scary,” and “What did you think it said?”

The transit company has fielded several calls from concerned riders, said Gretchen Schoel, executive director of A More Perfect Union.

One woman Miss Schoel described as a well-educated university employee placed a frantic call to the bus company’s manager, suggesting that the FBI be called in to investigate.

Even after the signs’ English translations were explained to her, she remained concerned that they might contain secret messages, Miss Schoel said.

“It’s so great that we’re getting feedback, even if it is negative, because it shows that people are looking, they’re thinking,” Miss Schoel said. “And it really proves the point that this script right here conjures up certain ideas in our heads that we have to work with.”

Bias toward the Muslim community is a continuing problem across the country and in Virginia, said Imad Damaj, president of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs.

“There’s so many lazy, unexamined assumptions about all of us and how we react to people,” Mr. Damaj said. “We need to challenge ourselves.”

Miss Schoel said history has proved that Americans can learn to let go of irrational fears toward other cultures.

“After World War II, when people saw Japanese script, it was scary,” she said. “But now we see it and it’s fun, it’s hip, it signifies a cool culture. That’s a huge turnaround.”

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