x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Anti-Islam ad sparks US free speech debate

The group behind the ad, which will run on 20 Washington DC buses through mid-June, was identified as a hate group. Taimur Khan reports

A Metro bus, featuring a controversial ad, drives on a street in Washington, DC on May 21, 2014. Karen Bleir / AFP Photo
A Metro bus, featuring a controversial ad, drives on a street in Washington, DC on May 21, 2014. Karen Bleir / AFP Photo

NEW YORK // The first time Irfaan Noorudin saw the black-and-white ad equating Islam with antisemitism, he was sitting in traffic not far from the US Capitol when a bus bearing the incendiary message rolled past.

“It’s still so jarring”, he said, even though the ad, which also features a picture of the colonial-era mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Al Husseini, with Adolf Hitler, is only the latest in a string of ads placed on public transport across the country by anti-Islam groups.

The next time Mr Noorudin was confronted with the ad, he was dropping off his young daughter at her church-run daycare.

“How is that even allowed? That’s so weird”, members of the church staff and fellow parents said to him.

A few days later, the financial advisor and a group of friends were enjoying a Saturday night at a Washington cafe when a bus emblazoned with the message was stuck in traffic beside the patio where they were seated, drawing eyes and muting conversations.

“Even though you may not want that to be a message that’s received, it will be because so many people are going to see it, and it may substantiate what they think or just become all they know,” Mr Noorudin, 32, said. “And I don’t think there’s any way to really thwart it – how do you respond?”

Along with the Second World War-era photograph, the ads feature the slogan, “Islamic Jew-hatred: it’s in the Quran”, and says US foreign aid to Muslim countries should be cut off to “stop racism”. The group that placed the ad to run on 20 of Washington’s public buses through the middle of this month plans to place them in other cities after raising more than US$20,000 (Dh73,400) in donations from many individual supporters over the past two weeks, according to its co-founder, Pamela Geller.

The American Freedom Defence Initiative (AFDI), Ms Geller’s organization, has been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a non-profit organisation that tracks hate groups in the US. She was banned from entering Britain to attend a far-right rally last year.

Ms Geller is one of the country’s most prominent Islamophobes, and has sown controversy – and gained support – in North America and Europe for her high-volume activism against Islam, a religion she claims is antisemitic and whose followers are actively seeking to impose Sharia on the US.

AFDI has been involved in pushing state legislatures to pass bills that ban Islamic law, even though there is no legal recognition of Sharia in the US. Ms Geller gained notoriety for leading the successful 2010 movement against the construction of an Islamic centre in lower Manhattan.

The latest ads were placed in response to a bus-ad campaign by a pro-Palestine pressure group, American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), that coincided with the US tax deadline and called on the US to “stop aid to Israel’s occupation”. Even though the ads did not mention Jews or Judaism, the “basis of the Islamic opposition to Israel, and the reason why there has been no negotiated settlement and all attempts at one have failed, is Quran-inspired antisemitism”, and that the AMP was “stirring up Jew-hatred” because criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic, Ms Geller told The National in an email.

In response to AFDI’s ads, the AMP said they reject Ms Geller’s “attempt to conflate our political speech with anti-Semitism. AMP also rejects Geller’s response to our political speech ad with a racist and Islamophobic one”.

Many Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, are puzzled that a public transport system is carrying AFDI’s ads, and some feel the issue is more political than legal.

“If the KKK or other groups [placed] ads like that it wouldn’t be allowed, so why is it allowed for Muslim Americans to be targeted in that way?” Mr Noorudin said.

But just because AFDI’s ads target an entire religion does not place them outside the bounds of American free-speech laws, which only censors speech that is likely and intended to incite immediate violence.

That is an exceedingly high bar to meet, said Leslie Kendrick, a professor specialising in free speech law at the University of Virginia law school.

“This neutrality ends up creating a platform for extremely repugnant groups – like the KKK, like Geller’s group… but it also avoids government favoritism,” Ms Kendrick said. “We worry a lot when the government starts to decide who it can discriminate against and who it can’t.”

AFDI has sued city governments across the country that have refused to allow them to place their ads on public transport, and generally it has won. In 2012, a federal court judge ruled that the Washington transit system had to allow AFDI ads that called those opposed to Israel as “savages”, because they sell space for political ads generally and cannot limit those sales because of its message.

“We’re not able to refuse ads on the basis of content,” a spokeswoman for the Washington metro told AFP, citing the 2012 decision.

The ads ran in both the New York and Washington subway systems. But last month a federal appeals court ruled that Ms Geller could not trademark the phrase, “Stop the Islamisation of America” because it was offensive to Muslims.

“Trademark law has historically been treated differently,” Ms Kendrick said, perhaps because the government is entering a partnership and can choose that it does not want to sponsor such speech. “They do involve different specific areas of law, but one might question how different they should ultimately be.”

Although existing on the fringe of political discourse in the US, groups such as AFDI will continue to have outsized visibility because of campaigns such as the DC bus ads, and many Muslims fear that their ideas do have an effect on the way Islam is perceived in the country, especially outside of diverse cities.

In New York and Washington, however, the response was overwhelmingly against AFDI. After the public transit ads in 2012, riders in New York tore some of the posters down, and at least one person was arrested for spray painting over the ads.

Rabbi Rachel Gartner, of the capital’s Georgetown University, wrote in the Huffington Post in regard to the ads, “As an American, I insist on the right to free speech, even when I deplore the message. As a rabbi, I insist on the responsibility to speak out against hateful speech, particularly when it comes from one of our own.”

The task of countering AFDI’s messages in the public sphere has been led by interfaith groups generally, not Muslim organisations, who condemn but rarely have creative follow-up campaigns.

But this time, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim organisations in the US, is planning an ad campaign to counter Ms Geller’s message.

“Campaigns like this have been launched against the Jewish community, the Italian community, the Japanse community, the African American community for centuries, and [AFDI] is just the latest hateful social group to try and alienate others,” said Nihad Awad, CAIR’s executive director. “When she spreads false information we see it is important to reset the record and provide an opportunity for the public to learn about Islam.”

Mr Noorudin doubts that such campaigns will be able to make much of a difference, though he hopes that new tactics are used because “we can’t just ignore it and pretend it’s only a lunatic yelling from the mountain”. Groups such as AFDI do appear to be well funded, and have been able, for example, to produce an anti-Islam movie that was added as an insert into newspapers nationwide during the 2012 elections.

But he also senses a feeling of fatigue among American Muslims, many of whom are tired of having to defend their religion and their communities.

“You’re almost like: ‘Well, that’s just what people think,’” he said. “Because in people’s minds, whatever you say, the next morning a bombing in Pakistan or the kidnapping of 300 girls in Nigeria will easily take away anything you’ve said.”

tkhan@thenational.ae