Thought Islamophobia was dead? Wait, there’s more!
by Sofi Muñoz
Any Fordham student who has taken the Manhattan bound D train has probably noticed the blatantly anti-Islamic ad next to the clock, the one with an image of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center September 11 and captioned “Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers- Quran 3:151”. The ads were sponsored by by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a controversial organization identified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose stated goal is to stop the Islamization of the United States. Last Monday, AFDI moved west, unveiling a new series of ads on San Francisco’s public buses that have drawn fire for being hateful towards the Muslim and Arabic community. AFDI’s executive director, Pamela Geller, says the purpose of the ads is to retaliate against the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations “My Jihad” ad campaign, launched in December 2012.
As part of a larger effort to correct commonly held misconceptions about Islam, CAIR, an American Muslim civil liberties advocacy group, ran a series of ads attempting to give “jihad” a positive connotation by portraying smiling men and women with upbeat captions such as “My jihad is to build friendships across the aisle, what’s yours?” or “My jihad is to remain fit despite my busy schedule”. Jihad, which means ‘struggle’ in Arabic, can be interpreted as a literal holy war against unbelievers, or as struggle to be a better person. As CAIR’s website notes, “Jihad is a central tenet of the Islamic creed which means struggling uphill in order to get to a better place”, inviting believers and nonbelievers alike to share their own personal jihads using #MyJihad on Twitter.
Despite mainstream Muslims’ assertion that it denotes an internal struggle for personal improvement, jihad has long been associated with terrorism and radical Islam, an aspect that AFDI magnified in their retaliatory ad campaign. The ads, which feature images of terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden and members of Hamas, stand in stark contrast to the cheery tone created in CAIRS’s ads, and contain the workds of known terrorists such as “the mosques are our barracks, teh domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers- Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey. . .that’s his jihad, what’s yours?” or “Homosexuality is ugly, in Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country- President Ahmadinejad, of Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death.” According to the Associated Press, Pamela Geller said the purpose of the campaign is to demonstrate the “reality of jihad and root causes of terrorism, from the words of jihadists themselves.” San Francisco city officials, as well as several community leaders, condemned the ads as hateful, and District Attorney George Gascon stated, “These offensive ads serve no purpose than to denigrate our city’s Arab and Muslim communities.”
Even though there has been a public outcry against the ads, the San Francisco transit agency has made no move to pull them, asserting that the ads are protected by the First Amendment and Americans’ right to free speech. Instead, the agency has moved to donate the money from the ads to a human rights group. This decision is quite controversial, but in the end, it is the right one to take. Though AFDI’s ads are offensive and insensitive, the controversy they are generating is sparking a much needed nationwide debate, not only about the true definition of jihad, but over the boundaries of free speech and the role of tolerance in society. Issues that flesh out these sorts of conversations are inherently good because they force individuals to stop and really think about what they believe and what they accept. For the nations 2.6 million (and counting) Muslim community, it is an opportunity to question the meaning of jihad and to challenge current perceptions of their religion. For the rest of the country, it is the ultimate test in both acceptance and protection of free speech. The very purpose of the First Amendment is to allow Americans to engage in essential debates without fear of reprisals. Though Pamela Gellar chose an insensitive way to express her opinion, the conversation that has ensued is a starting point towards greater understanding within our society.