While waiting for the train on the platform in a New York City station I always read the advertisements plastered on the walls. I don’t watch much television and these ads always update me on the newest movie releases, season premieres of television’s hottest primetime shows and NYC’s latest fashion trends. Starting this week, New Yorkers are in for something a bit out of the ordinary – in-your-face racism and the response to it.
An ad went up on Monday, September 24 in 10 train stations in New York City that reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Many New Yorkers will pass right by them and not even flinch, but I am not that New Yorker. I am a First Amendment absolutist and I believe wholeheartedly that Pamela Geller, founder of Stop the Islamization of America, a cited hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has every right to express herself through these ads. I also believe, however, that with freedom of speech comes responsibility. Is it legal in a court of law to place these hateful ads? Absolutely. Are they moral and necessary? Absolutely not. This is not just about legality, but also about morality. Slavery was once legal in the United States, but that didn’t make it moral.
I had the opportunity to debate Ms. Geller on a BBC program last week. I did not debate her right to put up the ads, but I challenged the false premise on which the ads are based. Muslims welcome constructive debate on Islam. We have it all the time within the Muslim community. What we don’t welcome is demonization, hate and misinformation about our faith. During the debate, Geller defended herself by saying that her ads were in response to an ad campaign by a pro-Palestine group whose message was to end military aid to Israel and put an end to occupation in Palestine.
The difference between the two sets of ads is that one was merely political and did not generalize or demonize a group of people while the other was intentional in its vile depiction of an entire group as savages and sub-human. Geller elaborated that there is no Palestine – a view not held by most Americans. As a Palestinian, this comment shocked the conscience. But it was better to remain level headed than to fall into the uncivilized and cruel rhetoric that Geller was employing. Geller and her allies should strive for rational debate rather than demagoguery.
The use of the terms “savage” and “civilized man” are intentionally inflammatory. “Savage” is a loaded word that recalls the dehumanization of African Americans and Native Americans. Geller runs roughshod over this history in her effort to incite a response to her ad. She wants a violent reaction without regard to the interests of the United States and people in the region.
The “civilized man” is a metaphor for Israel, while “savage” is a charged reference to Muslims and Palestinians. Strikingly, it is the employer of the charge that Muslims are uncivilized who is herself promoting debate in an uncivilized and hateful manner. When Andre Breivik set off a bomb and went to a youth camp in Norway to massacre scores of people, he didn’t cite Osama Bin Laden or a Palestinian suicide bomber in his manifesto. No, he cited and recommended articles by none other than Pamela Geller, the bigot behind the subway ads.
Recently, we saw thousands of Muslims across the world protest an amateur film that depicts our beloved prophet Muhammad as a pedophile and a womanizer. A small number of these protests turned violent. We went from cheering on the thousands in Tahrir Square during the revolution that took down Mubarak of Egypt to Newsweek-style pictures of angry bearded men burning American flags. These protests clearly don’t represent the people of the Muslim world but were the images on the primetime news shows and front page of all mainstream newspapers. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world; surely those few who protested violently do not represent them all.
Many people are perplexed how such a badly made film could elicit so much anger in a people. It’s not about one film, but about a film being unleashed in a larger context. Political pressures and grievances have accumulated after years of aggressive US foreign policy, wars, disrespect and dehumanization. The anger emerges from feelings of marginalization and isolation.
The unequivocal support from the United States government for Israel is a major ongoing point of dispute. Israel has received tens of billions of dollars in military aid and avoided harsh criticism from the US for its ongoing military occupation of Palestine. This does not go unnoticed. The U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine is obviously one-sided and has implications not just for Israel and Palestine, but the entire Arab/Muslim world. Some Americans view the one-sidedness as Biblically correct and/or appropriate siding with an ally, but much of the world views it as lending support to an apartheid-like state subjugating Palestinians.
Tragically, there seems to be a growing acceptance of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. In our country, individuals have a right to be racists and bigots, but when speech crosses the line into hate it is important that people of conscience draw the line. In recent weeks, six Sikh Americans were massacred in their temple in Wisconsin, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground, a Muslim cemetery was desecrated in Illinois, Molotov cocktails were thrown at another Muslim house of worship, and the list goes on.
Yet these hate groups seemingly get away with their violence while the unwarranted surveillance of Muslim- and Arab-Americans by law enforcement – as in New York by the New York Police Department (NYPD) – continues. The NYPD has targeted the Muslim communities of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, not based on credible criminal leads but solely based on their faith. The Associated Press documented this surveillance program in a recent investigative report. Muslim Americans are living in the most hostile civic environment that our community has ever faced in the United States. At this difficult time, Geller has unleashed an ad seemingly intent on eliciting more ill will from Americans.
I am a proud American who values the rights that come with my citizenship. I don’t want to violate individual freedoms or call for censorship. I am not advocating for “blasphemy restrictions on free speech” – in fact, I am not asking for any kind of restrictions on free speech. That freedom is the foundation for our values as a nation; you are free to say what you want and I am free to respond.
My hope, however, is that Geller’s hate falls flat. Many in the communities I traverse would like to see precisely the opposite response to the one she desires. If fellow Americans rally to our side and criticize Geller for her vicious ads it will be a great day for Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities too often belittled and demeaned in the United States.
Already, we see creative responses as New Yorkers refashion the ads to label them “hate speech” and “racist.” The danger, however, is that she still may tip a handful of people into violent outbursts against Muslims and Arabs. Geller will claim she is not responsible, but she will undoubtedly have played a part – precisely as she did with Breivik.
We are far from a hate-free America, but we owe it to our children to work towards something different, something better. Geller has appealed to the hateful instincts within us, but I am hopeful she will succeed only in isolating herself and in bringing together Americans who challenge not only her speech, but the notion that we should unstintingly support Israel even as it subjugates millions of Palestinians.