Drivers traveling west on I-84 are invited to turn east — toward Mecca.
A billboard promoting Islam near the Cheshire exit, and only a short distance from the construction of what will be the largest mosque in the state, encourages drivers to call a toll-free number to learn about the world's second largest religion.
The Connecticut chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America, which paid for the billboard, has sponsored similar billboards nationwide to inform non-Muslims about Islam and to correct negative stereotypes that emerged after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Islamic Circle held its national convention in July at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, an event attended by about 15,000 people.
"What we see in the news media and television is a picture of Muslims that is far from reality," said Muhammad Ahmad, a member of the Islamic Circle of North America and a doctor practicing internal medicine in Chicago. "Unless we go out and tell our neighbors who we are, there is no one who will correct the image."
Ahmad, who answers the 1-877-WHY-ISLAM phone lines, said he's received calls from curious priests, students, Muslims, non-Muslims and newspaper reporters. Some callers have even tried to convert him to their faith. Nationally, the group has mailed out about 3,000 translations of the Quran and other literature about Islam since it began its campaign years ago.
"We are giving out information. What people want to do with that information is their problem," Ahmad said.
A short distance off I-84 is the construction site for the new United Muslim Masjid of Waterbury. Naveed Khan, a member of the mosque, said the group is building a 24,000-square-foot structure because its current mosque on Prospect Street can't comfortably accommodate the growing number of Muslims in the Greater Waterbury area who pray there five times a day and gather for Islamic holidays.