When vitriolic advertisements that equated Muslims with “savages” recently appeared in 10 New York City subway stations, some who were irked by the incendiary message took matters into their own hands.
The posters, which read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Defeat Jihad. Support Israel,” became targets for vandals who plastered them with stickers, sprayed them with spray paint, and in some cases, ripped them into pieces.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), an anti-Muslim organization founded by bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, paid for the ad campaign — the latest in a long line of Muslim-bashing campaigns led by the duo. After several weeks of dispute over the legality of the ads’ placement, AFDI won an injunction to have them displayed. The hateful words, a federal district court in Manhattan ruled, are protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
Now, the provocative placards are set to appear in four Metro stations throughout the nation’s capital. On Friday, District Judge Rosemary Collyer issued a one-page ruling ordering that the Washington Metro Transit Authority install the posters immediately.
The aim of these advertisements is to provoke — to elicit an emotional outburst that their proponents then use as evidence of the very culture war they seek to advance. They begin with the presupposition that Muslims are violent, they mercilessly antagonize and taunt them, and then, when a fringe few react poorly, they complete the self-fulfilling prophecy by patting themselves on the back and saying “we told you so.”
D.C. passersby aggravated by the inflammatory language of these advertisements — which distorts the way most Muslims understand “jihad” by conflating a fraction of violent extremists with the entire faith group — must respond. But not with canisters of spray paint or magic markers or stickers. Those reactions only feed the attention-seeking provocateurs. Instead, this hate speech must be countered with an overwhelming societal refrain that emphasizes peace and pluralism, and condemns the divisive rhetoric of these bullies with alternative public messages that are forceful and clear.
Striking back at this latest provocation, three religious groups have offered useful examples of how best to combat intolerant hate speech. In Manhattan stops, they launched a counter-campaign for tolerance.
Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization of Jewish rabbis that promote interfaith cooperation, unveiled a poster campaign in the same Manhattan metro stations as the anti-Muslim ads. They read: “In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.” The Christian group Sojourners also ran a counter-ad, which read: “Love your Muslim neighbors.” And another Christian group, United Methodist Women, an affiliate of the United Methodist Church, struck back by purchasing poster space in the same metro stations, offering this message: “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.”
These are effective replies that underscore the ways in which our freedoms of religion and speech should be understood. Rather than entrenching themselves on each side of a perceived faith divide and using their Constitutional rights and religious narratives as weapons against believers of other faith traditions, these organizations synchronized the values of their faith and nationality in a powerful way.
For them, hate speech is not only antithetical to their religious beliefs. It is also anti-American.
It is incumbent that those who value a more equitable and just world join this chorus and express their disapproval of the denigration of Muslims in our society. Speaking out publicly against this racism du jour — to family, friends, neighbors, faith groups, educational communities and co-workers — is a necessary and meaningful first step.
Volunteering with interfaith groups that work to promote pluralistic values, befriending Muslim acquaintances and learning about each other’s beliefs, and tuning out the voices that sow discord and division are also positive remedies.
Subway ads, anti-Muslim films, crude caricatures of sacred religious figures, and other prejudicial paroxysms of this generation of bigots will come and go. Responding with actions that foster lasting relationships and a sense of peace and goodwill are far more effective than temporary defacements that will only last as long as these anti-Muslim ads are on display.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post on October 8, 2012.