Few weeks ago, a group called the American Freedom Defence Initiative, paid to run a pro-Israel, anti-Islam ad in New York and San Francisco public transport systems. The ad, posted in subway stations and on public transport buses, said the following: “In any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad.”
And when New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) refused to the run the ad on the grounds that it was demeaning to a group of people, on account of their religion or national origin, the pro-Israel group took it to court and a federal judge ruled in its favour under the First Amendment.
The case has attracted attention not only because it encourages hate speech, but also because it calls into question the right of certain groups to promote such speech in public or government-owned spaces.
According to Richard Kaplar of the Media Institute, “the courts have been fairly clear — and the supreme court in particular — that it’s willing to tolerate a pretty high level of so-called hate speech under the greater good of protecting other types of speech”.
The same logic and legal argument was used to justify the inability of courts to ban the anti-Islam film, produced by an Egyptian Copt living in the United States, or prevent newspapers in Europe from publishing cartoons that mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.
Muslims have had diverse reactions to such infringements on their religion. Some have called on the West to pass laws that prohibit demeaning religion and religious groups, along the lines of laws that incriminate anti-Semitism or those who question the holocaust. Others believed the best way to counter anti-Islam sentiments and Islamophobia is to tell the world the truth about Islamic culture and religion, which calls for tolerance and respects the beliefs of both Jews and Christians.
It is important to note that human rights and civil rights organisations in the United States objected to this latest anti-Islam ad campaign. But more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that two religious groups — one Jewish, one Christian — are buying subway ads urging tolerance and love instead of hate.
Rabbis for Human Rights in North America is placing its own ads in New York’s subway stations stating: “In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbours.”
The other group, Sojourners, led by Christian author and social-justice advocate Jim Wallis, unveiled its own campaign, which simply states: “Love your Muslim neighbours.”
They were joined by United Methodist Women, which placed ads in 10 Manhattan subway stations declaring: “Hate speech is not civilised. Support peace in word and deed.”
In response to their pro-Muslims campaign, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, told The New York Times that “we want everyone to know that we have to work in partnership with the Muslim community and do not believe in dehumanising them”.
It will take more than goodwill to stop a systematic distortion of Islam and Muslims, especially in the West. Muslim countries and organisations must work together to stem attempts to vilify Muslims and their religion in Europe and the United States.
The latest ad campaign is particularly vile, not only because it portrays Muslims as savages, but because it depicts Israel as a civilised country when, in fact, it is an occupying power that continues to emasculate the Palestinians and deny them their right to self-determination. Therefore, a challenge to Israel, in the view of the group, should be seen as a confrontation between “savages” and the “civilised”.
The pro-Israel group has refused to withdraw the ad even as the media and the public denounced it as racist and hateful. It is an indictment of Israel and its supporters, but in the larger scheme of things, it does little to change pre-existing views on either Muslims or Israel.
On the other hand, we, Muslims, must understand that since September 11 and the war against Al Qaeda, Islam as a great and universal religion has suffered because of stereotypical perceptions and impressions.
We have failed to underline many facts and defeat numerous misconceptions about Islam, especially with regard to the abuse of the meaning and purpose of Jihad in today’s world. We have failed to counter an aggressive anti-Islam agenda with positive and tolerant messages about Muslim civilisation and values.
It is indeed heart warming to see Jewish and Christian groups moving to defend Muslims while promoting tolerance and love, two values that Islam holds highly.
But what is needed, now more than ever, is for Muslim countries and various Islamic organisations, especially those in the West, to step in and educate the world about this great religion and its largely peaceful followers.
(The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. The article was published in the Jordan Times on Oct. 10, 2012)