Qasim Rashid squinted through his sunglasses and pointed toward the Kamikaze ride and the Curly Fries stand, shimmering under the August sun at the Wisconsin State Fair. “Team of two,” he said to several of the eight young men gathered around him. “That way.”
After the rest of the volunteers had departed in pairs, each one carrying a bundle of exactly 210 brochures, Mr. Rashid and his partners, Maanaan Sabir and Ryan Archut, headed down the midway past the Fun Slide and the World’s Smallest Horse. There, at one compass point in the middle of Middle America, they went about attesting that there were Muslims for peace.
It said so, in those exact words, right next to the image of a dove, on the cover of the pamphlets they had come to distribute. Inside the flier, a headline announced “Love For All — Hatred For None,” and a slash mark cut through the word “Terrorism.”
“Sir, can I offer you a free ‘Muslims for Peace’ brochure?” Mr. Rashid, 28, a law school student at the University of Richmond, asked the first passer-by.
“I’ll take one,” the man replied, “because I’m not racist.”
So began the latest sally in the month-old effort by the Ahmadi Muslim community in the United States to present Islam as a religion that abhors violence. For the Ahmadis, making that argument is far from an act of naïveté or convenient rationalization. They have been persecuted by Muslim extremists — most recently in a May attack on two mosques in Pakistan — for adhering to a pacifistic interpretation of Islam propounded 120 years ago by the sect’s messianic founder.
To fundamentalist Muslims, the Ahmadi beliefs amount to apostasy. To Ahmadis like Mr. Rashid, however, an Islam that renounces violence is exactly the message Americans need to hear, especially at a time when proposals to build mosques and Muslim centers likeCordoba House near ground zero in Lower Manhattan have fanned a furious backlash.
“As a Muslim, as an Ahmadi, I feel my role is to improve the world,” Mr. Rashid said in an interview. “We haven’t succeeded at what we want to do, and I blame myself for not doing enough. This is the spiritual struggle that is the true meaning of jihad.”
For their peace jihad, Mr. Rashid and other volunteers have as weapons only pamphlets, sturdy legs and seemingly limitless tolerance. At flea markets, shopping centers, busy intersections and suburban subdivisions, Ahmadi activists since early July have been canvassing fellow Americans with the goal of dispensing six million brochures.
Because an annual gathering of Ahmadi young people (meaning ages 7 to 40) convened this week in Milwaukee, the state fairgrounds made a natural destination for this theological version of retail politics, even if landmarks like the Swine Barn and the Sheboygan Brat Haus are something less than halal.
Mr. Rashid continued his efforts beside the carousel, where a local man named William Krumnow responded to the brochure with the question, “How come we can have mosques here, but when you come to the Middle East, you can’t put churches up?”
Rather than go into the factual reality — though Saudi Arabia has such restrictions, many Middle Eastern nations have had churches for centuries — Mr. Rashid solicitously explained that the Koran teaches Muslims to protect Christians and Jews as kindred monotheists.
“If that’s what you guys are believing in,” Mr. Krumnow, who is Lutheran, responded, “then why are things happening the way they are?”
Again, Mr. Rashid listened closely, shutting out the squeals of children and the cries of barkers. “Every religion has its extremists,” he said, “and in Islam, we’ve let our extremists speak too loudly. That’s why we’re here. So you can hear our voice.”
Maybe 50 yards away, on the far side of the SpongeBob balloons, Ryan Archut had struck up a conversation with the Rev. Steve Frazier, the assistant chaplain of the Racine County jail. Mr. Frazier was interested enough to ask Mr. Archut about supplying Korans to the Muslim inmates, but skeptical in larger ways.
“I think it’s a good initiative,” Mr. Frazier said of the peace campaign and of Mr. Archut. “But he’s got a lot of work ahead of him. Americans are very biased, and it’s going to take a lot of work to change that.”
By late afternoon, the wind had picked up, whipping the plastic banners, and shadows had begun to fall across lemonade stands. Still, Mr. Rashid and his crew said more polite hellos and passed out more fliers. One woman, looking at the brochure’s photograph of the Ahmadi founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, with beard and turban, asked, “Ain’t he the one who bombed us?”
Before heading out the fair gates, Mr. Rashid wrung a promise from the teenager who ran the basketball booth. If the Ahmadi sank a shot, the teenager would take a brochure. It took four tries, but Mr. Rashid scored — and won an oversize cloth basketball. With it clasped under one arm, he kept handing out pamphlets, reducing his stack of 210 to about 35. Over all, his team had distributed a thousand in two hours.
“Even the people who said no, I don’t mind,” he said, heading back toward his van. “They saw us. They saw there are Muslims for peace.”