Muslims in the US face Islamophobic poster onslaught
New York // Two weeks after an anti-Islam film set off violence protests in many Muslim countries, commuters on New York's subway will tomorrow be confronted by an advertisement that describes Muslims as savages.
While a right-wing group had seemingly hoped that the posters would provoke an angry reaction from US Muslims, rights activists in New York say they are planning no protests or rallies. They will instead use social media to reframe the discussion about Islam, an increasingly common tactic that they have turned to in the face of anti-Muslim sentiment.
In 10 subway stations, walls will bear posters that read: "In any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."
The advertisements were paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), an organisation listed as an Islamaphobic hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center
AFDI is headed by Pamela Geller, a right-wing blogger who in 2010 rose to prominence by leading the campaign to block construction of an Islamic community centre in lower Manhattan, near the World Trade Center site.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) initially refused to run AFDI's ads, saying they violated its ban on "demeaning" content. But the AFDI sued the MTA, and in July a federal judge ruled that the policy violated the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.
Ms Geller said the AFDI advert aimed to counter another campaign that ran in the subway system last year that called on the United States government to stop military aid to Israel. "We are hoping to raise awareness of what is an increasingly Sharia-compliant media," Ms Geller said about the adverts in a BBC interview on Friday. "I will not sacrifice my free speech so as not to offend savages."
Muslim activists in New York who were at the forefront of the fight over the construction of the Islamic centre near say that they have become more savvy in their responses to Islamophobic attacks.
"[Ms Geller's] intention is to promote hate, that's what she does for a living," said Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American rights advocate based in New York who debated Ms Geller on the BBC on Friday. "But our community is learning to pick its battles and we don't want to give her more importance than she deserves." Instead of holding news conferences or rallies, Ms Sarsour says that since 2010 she and other Muslim activists, inspired by the Arab Spring, have "tapped in to the internet as a place to organise and grasped the importance of social media for creating conversations".
Ms Sarsour has more than 6,000 followers on Twitter. She and others plan to employ a social media strategy that they used recently in the wake of the revelations about the New York Police Department's surveillance of Muslims as well as the recent Newsweek magazine cover about the film protests that featured an image and cover line - "Muslim Rage" - which they found offensive.
In both cases, Ms Sarsour said, the activists asked others on Twitter with more than 5,000 followers to promote certain hashtags, causing the online discussions to trend, which drew media interest and participation.
In the case of the Newsweek story, the magazine inadvertently undermined its own attempt to create a conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #muslimrage. Within hours, Twitter users around the world were attaching the tag to ironic tweets that played on what many considered a hopelessly one-dimensional take on the protests.
Tonight, Ms Sarsour and others will begin promoting the hashtag #mysubwayad. "We want people to have the opportunity to be original in their responses to the ads, or just be funny and join the larger discussion and do the same thing we did with Muslim rage," Ms Sarsour said. "We want to create a discussion on what the ads really mean and also show the lighter side of the community."
The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is also planning a social-media strategy for countering the ads. The pressure group will ask its followers on Twitter to tweet the location of any of the ads to the organisation's Twitter handle, and in response it will send volunteers to the location to distribute leaflets countering the ads, said Cyrus McGoldrick, an advocacy director with CAIR.
"It's been a crazy few weeks, there's been so much harm done already," Mr McGoldrick said. "We are asking people to respond in a responsible way."
Muslim commuters on Friday were mostly unaware of the upcoming adverts.
Maryam Said, a 23-year-old university student from Brooklyn who wears the hijab, said she considered the adverts to be hate speech and that she would feel unsafe at a station that featured them. "It makes me upset; people will connect jihadi to Muslim and Muslim to hijab," she said.
Ms Said also said she was active on Twitter and thought that online activism is an effective way to combat Ms Geller's initiatives. "When people see us poking fun at these things rather than getting worked up, they see that we have a point," she said.
Updated: September 23, 2012 04:00 AM