Starting last week, New Yorkers taking the subway on their local commute glanced out the cars’ windows to cast eyes on this stark, dramatic message, “In the war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”. The ads, paid for by a conservative group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), will run for one month. Immediately following a court battle in which the courts upheld AFDI’s free speech right to post the message, all sorts of commentary flooded the news media as to the meaning and repercussions of the ads. Two questions seem to underlie debates: first, who are the ads actually targeting and second, what is an appropriate response for those who want to share a different message?
On the classification front the ad’s supporters proclaim a specific message against only persons engaged in radical or violent Islam, while detractors argue the ads preach a general anti-Muslim Islamophobia. The message’s far-reaching, all-encompassing adversity seems quite obvious in a contextual sense. First, the language itself is bold and sweeping, speaking in primal tones of civilization and savage and encouraging the viewer to extrapolate the message to a higher plane of generalities. The sign, bold white lettering against a black backdrop, with the blood red color of the words Defeat Jihad, carries an almost apocalyptic tint to it. This is not a nuanced message, with caveats and classifications and factual support. Rather, this message is a blatant attack on ‘the foreign’-here, those who identify with an ill-defined and misunderstood term ‘jihad.’
Should more contextual evidence be needed, Ayn Rand originally spoke the phrase in an interview specifically referencing the Arabs as the explicit savages and further commented that Arabs, sic follows of Islam, were one of the least developed cultures on the planet. Couple this with the placement of the ads in the subway, where most viewers, overwhelmed with mass commercialism in all directions, will only catch the headline words -in this case civilization, savage, Israel, jihad- and interpret at will. Perhaps most convincingly, the ads are funded by an organization whose founder is overtly biased, politicized, and does not have a college degree. Her intentions are in no way an honest approach to diversity and religion nor do her preachings stem from any sort of intellectual, nuanced, engaged understanding of the shape of the world.
There’s an entirely separate dialogue to consider if this is to be read as a pro-Israel poster. But the real social commentary focuses more on the anti-Islam interpretation and it is enough for a short commentary to stick with the issue at hand. If we acknowledge the deliberate anti-Islam intention of the ad, where does that leave us? What are the appropriate, or rather effective, means of response? Pro-civil rights groups have been denouncing the ads as hate speech and one female Muslim protestor made headlines after her very public subway arrest for marking a poster with graffiti. One Chicago-based organization began a bus ad campaign with signs saying “Have Questions about Islam? Call 1-800-….”. From denouncing the poster’s negative, albeit First Amendment- approved message to advertising knowledge through a pseudo-proselytization headline, pro-tolerance groups remain on the defensive.
A counter-ad campaign displaying the faces of ‘real’ Islam would stab at the anti-Muslim undertones of ADFI’s offensive ad. Instead of simply disapproving ‘hate speech’, diversity organizations and religious freedom groups need to take the offensive and start knocking down the barriers of ignorance. If the Chicago based ads put the onus of seeking knowledge on the average citizen, a more proactive campaign offers the knowledge in an equally dramatic, primal, mass media message. It is always easier to incite fear than to foster goodwill. If conservatives can pontificate without concern for political correctness, caveats, or stereotyping, liberals at some point need to appropriate these tactics lest they dangerously assume that the educated man’s worldview trump fear-mongering every time. Narrowly equating Muslims with uncivilized Arabs undermines both the important historical advancements made by members of the Muslim faith as well as the extreme diversity of Muslims in 2012. This ad is neither the beginning nor the end of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Supporters of religious tolerance need to wise up and take the offensive before they find themselves off the playing field altogether.
Yale Law School Juris Doctor Candidate 2015
Fulbright Scholar, 2010-2012