With the Muslim world still roiled by a YouTube video denigrating Islam that was made in California, an ad that some groups consider anti-Muslim will appear in 10 of New York’s subway stations starting on Monday.
"In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad,” reads the ad, which is being paid for by two groups, the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop the Islamization of America, both of which have a distinctly anti-Muslim bent.
One of the people involved with placing the ad is Pamela Geller, a co-founder of the two groups who was also behind the effort in 2010 to halt the construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. She says there are plans to run the ad in several other US cities once there is funding, and on Thursday the sponsors filed suit to have it run in the nation’s capital as well.
The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority tried to ban the ad on the grounds that it was demeaning. But a federal judge ruled recently that the message is protected under the First Amendment.
Nevertheless, it is likely to provoke a debate over how far the First Amendment right extends in a city with a large Muslim population.
Mainstream Jewish groups call the ad “offensive and inflammatory,” and many New Yorkers worry that it might provoke a violent reaction.
“I understand free speech, but on a visceral level you feel like you have a bull’s eye on your back,” says Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch University and a subway rider. “I just tweeted that I don’t want to be a victim of Muslim rage.”
The ads are coming at a time of high tensions over the anti-Muslim YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which was seen as insulting the Prophet Mohammed and which led to a surge of anti-American violence in the Arab world. The US ambassador to Libya was among four Americans killed in an attack in Benghazi.
On Friday, the violence overseas continued with 17 people reported killed in Pakistan in anti-Western protests. The high tension is the reason the Washington, D.C., transit system has said it wants to “defer” running the ads. On Thursday the ad’s sponsors filed a lawsuit against the Washington Metro system challenging the action.
“When is a good time?” asks Geller in a phone interview. “There is never a good time.”
Geller defends the ads, saying they are a recognition of reality. “Those ads are accurate,” she says, citing Hamas attacks on Israel and the July attack on Israeli citizens in Bulgaria. “Isn’t that savagery?” she asks.
Geller says the ads are running in response to what she terms anti-Israel ads that started running in multiple cities in 2010. In San Franciso the ads called for peace and justice in the Middle East and the end of US military aid to Israel. They were paid for by a non-profit Christian group, Friends of Sabeel – North America, the Jewish Voice for Peace, and American Muslims for Palestine.
The ads appeared in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (“Muni”) system on 10 buses in August. But Muni donated the proceeds from the ad buy to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and placed its own ad on the buses that stated it did not support the message.
“The recent ad has no value in facilitating constructive dialogue or advancing the cause of peace and justice,” said Tom Nolan, chairman of the board of directors, and Ed Reiskin, director of transportation for Muni, in a statement in August.
Groups supporting Geller’s ads hailed the New York court decision. “I am very pleased to report that for once the freedom of speech and the truth have triumphed over political correctness and submission to the Islamic supremacist agenda,” wrote Jihad Watch.org on its website after the decision. “All kudos go to Pamela Geller, who originated this ad.”
However, the ads place many groups in a bind since they support free speech but dislike the message.
“The advertisements are patently offensive, but more offensive would be their censorship because that would violate the guarantee of free expression of all ideas regardless of how distasteful they are,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Mainstream Jewish groups also support the right to run the ad but don’t appreciate the message.
“We agree with the court’s decision that this is protected speech and this organization has the right to run such speech even if we strongly disagree with the sentiment and what they are expressing,” says Ron Meier, director of the New York region of the Anti-Defamation League. “In our view being pro-Israel does not mean being anti-Muslim.”
Even Islamic civil rights groups in the US support the right for the ads to run. “The First Amendment grants everybody rights, including to be a racist and bigot like Pamela Geller,” says Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington.
Mr. Hooper says there are ramifications such as a rise in attacks on Muslims or mosques as a result of the ads. “The ordinary Muslim has to deal with the consequences of her (Geller’s) promotion of hatred and bigotry,” he says.