A series of provocative anti-Islam advertisements has embroiled New York City’s transportation authority in a free speech legal battle this week after a pro-Israel political group filed a federal lawsuit to force the city to include a rejected phrase in one of its controversial ads.
The group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, launched in 2010 by blogger Pamela Geller, proposed an ad that displayed the quote, “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” attributing it to “Hamas MTV.” The quote is displayed next to the head of a sinister-looking face wrapped in an Arab keffiyeh scarf, and also includes, “That’s #MyJihad. What’s yours?”
The city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority rejected the ad, which would be displayed on buses and subways, saying it “would imminently incite or provoke violence.” Courts have previously ruled the MTA’s ad spaces are open-ended public forums that cannot discriminate on the basic of political views.
Three of the group’s approved ads have already begun to appear on 100 New York City buses and two subway stations, after city officials and faith leaders gathered on the steps of City Hall last week to denounce the views of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
“These ads are outrageous, inflammatory and wrong, and have no place in New York City, or anywhere,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in a statement to The New York Daily News in September. “These hateful messages serve only to divide and stigmatize when we should be coming together as one city.”
On Monday, the group altered one of its ads that included an image of journalist James Foley after the family said it would cause them “profound distress.” That ad featured a screen-grab photo of Mr. Foley moments before he was beheaded by an Islamic State militant, along with a photo of Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a British national and rapper currently fighting in Syria, in front of a DJ turntable. The ad reads: “Yesterday's moderate is today's headline.”
In a letter to Ms. Geller, AFDI’s founder and executive director, the Foley’s family urged the group to withdraw the ad, saying, “Having lived and reported from communities in which nearly everyone was of Muslim faith, [Foley] had great respect for the religion and those who practiced it. The advertisement you are preparing to run seems to convey the message that ordinary practitioners of Islam are a dangerous threat. This message is entirely inconsistent with Mr. Foley’s reporting and his beliefs.”
The group acquiesced, removing Foley’s image from the ad, substituting instead another image purported to be Mr. Abdel Bary holding aloft an unidentified severed head, which was blurred out on the new poster.
“Our organization has created this campaign in order to educate people about Jihad,” Geller told a local radio station in September. “I don’t think the truth is controversial. I think we’re entering a very dangerous period, and I don’t think the American people should be disarmed in the information battle space.”
The group’s other ads include a photo of Hitler sitting with a Muslim Imam, proclaiming “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Quran.” Another reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.”
While these ads were approved, the MTA said the “Killing Jews” ad “would lead reasonable observers to interpret it as urging direct, violent attacks on Jews, given turmoil in Gaza, Syria and Iraq and New York City’s heightened security concerns.”
Geller rejected the criticism her organization has been receiving by New York leaders and opinion pieces in the media, calling it a “double standard.”
“In Islamic countries, if you criticize Islam, you are sentenced to death,” she wrote in her blog, Atlas Shrugs. “In the West, if you criticize Islam, they assassinate your good character and destroy your name and reputation. There are few brave voices who publicly speak with candor about the threat we face. These courageous souls face ruin and death threats in defense of freedom and equality for all.”