The ads had initially been rejected by the city’s Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) but were later allowed after a legal appeal ruled them to be expressions of freedom of speech. One ad reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.”
The ads are set to appear in at least 10 of the city’s 400 subways stations and have been designed and paid for by the controversial American Freedom Defence Initiative, which is led by outspoken anti-Islamist activist Pamela Geller. The AFDI has been termed an “active anti-Muslim group” by the civil rights watch dog organisation the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
“You are talking about people like me being called a “savage”,” said Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. “It is all bubbling up. I know there is freedom of speech, but with freedom of speech comes responsibility. This promotes hate.”
The AFDI first came to prominence during a prolonged fight about the building of an Islamic cultural centre in downtown Manhattan. Its critics dubbed the project a “Ground Zero mosque” and waged a high-profile campaign against it that many said was Islamaphobic. The SPLC termed Geller “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead.”
Ads similar to the ones set to appear in New York have already been put on buses in San Francisco. However, the local transport authority in the city, known as Muni, donated the funds raised by the ad to the city’s Human Rights Commission and also ran their own ad next to it that stated: “Muni doesn’t support this message.” The AFDI has also sought to run the ads in Washington DC but authorities there have delayed them for public safety concerns.
Muslim civil rights groups said the ads were coming at an especially sensitive time as world politics are already being rocked by violent protests and attacks on American embassies in the wake of the production of an anti-Islamic film made by an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in California. It also comes after several high-profile incidents in the US, including the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri. “They add to the overall picture of anti-Muslim feeling that is growing up in our nation,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The renewed controversy over the ads also comes on the same day as a major global report by the Pew Research Centre identified a rise of religious intolerance worldwide, including in the US. On the two measures the survey used – called “social hostility” and “government restrictions” – the US moved up the scale for the first time in both areas. When it came to official restrictions the US went from a low category to moderate, but when it came to the social hostilities index the country went from the lower end of the moderate scale to the upper end.
See also “Controversial ‘Defeat Jihad’ ad to appear in NYC subways”, CNN, 19 September 2012