Years ago in the middle of Sydney a pub and church played duelling billboards. A good natured, often humorous exchange where the priest of St Barnabas Anglican church on Parramatta Road and Broadway and the publican of the Broadway Hotel played off each other – respectfully. Sydneysiders knew to look for the billboards each week, and a book was even created celebrating the most memorable billboards. It was friendly, inclusive and led to greater awareness and understanding of the place of religion in everyday Sydney – until the church burned to the ground in 2006.
Today a new religious billboard competition has sprung up.
Sydney’s fastest rising religious group is Islam, so it should not be surprising that the often seen billboards with Christian messages are seeing a competitor in those purchased by the Islamic group, MyPeace. Seeking to introduce everyday (religiously uneducated/unaware) Sydneysiders to the content of Islamic belief, stating “Mary and Prophet Jesus: Read about them in the Qu’ran” and “Jesus: a prophet of Islam,” and an invitation to find out more. These statements are two very basic and fundamental aspects of the Islamic faith, yet strangely offensive to many fearful Christian believers simply because it challenges their own faith’s views.
One of the billboards was defaced, and complaints registered with the Advertising Standards Council, crying out for the billboards to be taken down, saying they are an abuse of freedom of speech (which isn’t a law anyway in Australia) and yes, someone even said it scared children (sigh). Thankfully, however, they remain.
And now Australia’s answer to Pat Robertson, the Rev. Fred Nile has joined the debate by saying he intends to put up his own billboard. The Sydney Morning Herald (if you click through, it’s the story under Arnie) quotes Nile as saying “We are responding with facts and truths and Jesus has nothing to do with the Islamic religion whatsoever.” (Sorry Fred, that’s just wrong.) Nile’s intended billboards actually step over the line, and attack the Islamic faith (something that MyPeace’s billboard messages did not do): “Jesus Christ is Divine. Mohammed was a man.” And “The Koran denies the truth that Jesus Christ died on the Cross of Calvary.”
Poor Fred Nile and his supporters – they need an advertising agency, or a swift kick. Whichever one. They do not see that you attract more flies with sugar than with vinegar. While MyPeace’s billboard messages are simple and striking, Nile’s billboards will do nothing to create a more inclusive, educated public. I think the organizer of MyPeace, Diaa Mohamed, is being extremely generous in responding to Nile’s intentions with the suggestion they debate the divinity of Jesus Christ in a public forum – now that’s something that would be a step above the inclusive entertainment of the publican and the priest.