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Billboard sparks debate, shows 9/11 feelings still raw

James Rosen, McClatchy Washington Bureau • Dec 17, 2015 at 5:35 PM

WASHINGTON (MCT) – If there's such a thing as an old-fashioned billboard going viral, it's happened to a poster ad showing a U.S. soldier and a Muslim woman embracing.

After weeks of slowing traffic on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the billboard is now up in downtown Chicago, where cars honk and passers-by stop to stare.

But there will be no similar sensation in New York City.

Clear Channel, citing "community standards" at a site not far from the Ground Zero memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, refused to let the photo run on its billboard at Times Square. An ad agency could not find other billboard owners willing to display the controversial image near the spot where the illuminated ball slowly drops every New Year's Eve to a throng at Broadway and Seventh Avenue.

The place where most people have seen the billboard is online. With widely divergent responses ranging from praise for its diversity to derisive and, at times, disturbing anti-Islam slurs, the striking photo has sparked thousands of digital postings, tweets, comments, Facebook entries and other expressions in the Internet universe.

The billboard, which advertises an anti-snoring device made by a California company, shows a soldier in an Army camouflage uniform with an American flag patch on his right shoulder and a black beret on his head. His left arm is draped around the shoulders of a woman wearing a black niqab headdress that reveals only her eyes. Her left hand is on his chest, a wedding band on her ring finger.

Next to the couple is the product name SnoreStop, with the slogan, "Keeping you together," beneath. The Twitter hashtag #betogether floats alongside the soldier's beret in the billboard's left corner.

William Andres, an Iraq war veteran who now lives in Clinton, Ill., believes that the billboard's message is important, and he reached out to the company to applaud its efforts

"It brings to life some of the issues Muslims face here in America," Andres told McClatchy. "A lot of people associate Muslims with terrorists. They have the wrong idea."

Andres, though, knows from personal experience how raw the billboard is for some Americans, even as others celebrate its bridging of cultures.

After six years of Air Force service, the senior airman left the military in 2006 and took a job with a security contractor in the Middle East. In Dubai, he began dating an Iranian woman named Negar; they married in August 2011 and have an 18-month-old daughter.

While most of their relatives and families have welcomed their union, Andres said they field a lot of questions in a small Midwestern town where he said a Christian war veteran with an Islamic Persian woman "is kind of an oddity."

Andres can handle curiosity. He has no patience for is the kind of hostility he's seen expressed online in response to the SnoreStop photo.

"As a veteran, I'm one of the most patriotic people I know," Andres said. "But in no way, shape or form is that billboard offensive to military veterans or to the fallen individuals of the Sept. 11 attacks."

McClatchy emailed, tweeted or called a dozen people who'd criticized the billboard, some of them in overtly racist terms, but none responded.

A typical negative comment, posted on the company's website at snorestop.com, reads: "If you were the LAST company on F _ _ _ EARTH , I would not buy from you. I hope a Muslim cuts your head off."

A positive comment reads: "I am a lesbian, been with my partner for 33 years now, and it is so nice to see an ad with diversity, and making it OK. Thank you so much!!!"

Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the American-Muslim Council, an Islamic civil rights group in Washington, said the billboard has evoked a fascinating mix of reactions in his religious and ethnic community.

"Those who support it see it as a Muslim soldier and his wife and say, 'What could be wrong with that?'" Hooper said. "Those who are critical view it as an exploitation of the shock value of seeing this juxtaposition of a soldier and a Muslim woman. We're choosing to take the most positive interpretation of the ad."

Hooper, though, cited a sad irony: A number of people he's heard from express a kind of reverse discrimination. They assume that the soldier is not a Muslim, even though there are many Caucasian Muslims in the United States and 7,000 declared Muslims in the U.S. military, with the actual number thought to be higher.

Christian de Rivel, marketing director for SnoreStop, based in Camarillo, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles, came up with the idea for the billboard.

"We want to show that we are embracing diversity," he said. "We wanted something unique. This is the ultimate diversity."

Aseel Machi wrote a deeply critical opinion column about the billboard last month for the Guardian newspaper in London. Machi said very few Muslim women wear the full headdress depicted in the ad.

"SnoreStop did not stop at profiling and stereotyping what a Muslim woman looks like, they placed her in the arms of an American soldier," she wrote. "As an Iraqi, when I see a man dressed in camouflage and matching hat with a Muslim woman in his arms, I think of the atrocities committed against not only men, but women and children during the brutal years of 'democracy and liberation' that ravaged my country on the whims of U.S. and international forces."

Machi added: "Women and girls _ some as young as 15 _ reportedly raped by soldiers between 2003 and 2004 may have something to say about this billboard."

Army Sgt. Paul Evans has a response to such vitriol: Chill.

Evans, 24, is an aspiring actor and National Guard soldier who is the real-life model shown in the billboard. He deeply supports its message, also partly based on personal experience.

When Evans was attending the Marion Military Institute five years ago in his native Alabama, he fell in love with a young black woman. He was stunned by the backlash their relationship sparked, starting with deep disapproval from his parents. While they came around, eventually inviting her home to a Thanksgiving dinner, the experience stayed with Evans, and he jumped at the chance to portray the soldier in the billboard.

"I'm really all about diversity," Evans told McClatchy. "I've had to deal with problems with discrimination a lot."

Evans said he's gotten mainly positive feedback from U.S. men and women in uniform from around the globe, and from Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere.

After a drill last month at Marine Corps Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Evans' commanding officer called him aside. Evans said he feared the lieutenant colonel would reprimand him over the billboard, but instead the commander extended his hand and congratulated him. The colonel declined a McClatchy interview request.

Army Capt. Will Martin, a spokesman for the California National Guard, said his closest friend when he served in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 was a Sunni Muslim. He said the billboard delivers an important message in one of the country's most diverse states.

"Last year we were the first (state) National Guard to intentionally reach out to the gay and lesbian community by placing recruiters at some of the (Gay) Pride events throughout the state," Martin said. "We understand that diversity is a big part of this state."

At the same time, Martin said, Evans' superior officers counseled him that he had pushed up against Army regulations restricting U.S. military endorsements of commercial products.

The young woman in the billboard, also 24, is Lexy Panterra, an aspiring singer who attended Sacramento High School in California and now lives in Los Angeles. She's the daughter of an Iranian immigrant and a native Caucasian mother of European descent.

Like Evans, Panterra (her stage name) actively supports the idea behind the billboard.

"I want everyone to be equal and respected," she said. "People shouldn't be separated so much. Everyone should be with whoever they want to be with."

Panterra said she occasionally attended church with her mother as a child, but is not especially observant now of Christianity or Islam. Her father, she said, loves the billboard.

"He tells me I'm a Muslim," she said. "He says I was born Muslim."

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