Is is Free Speech or is it Hate Speech? That is the question that new bus ads running in San Francisco pose. Of course, these bus ads are not your everyday advertisement for the “Got Milk” campaign. No. These ads, courtesy of Pamela Geller and the American Freedom Defense Institute, are designed to oppose radical Islam by using hyperbolic — some might say hate — language to get a certain viewpoint across to the citizens of the City by the Bay. Ms. Geller and her organization have been responsible for similar ad campaigns in the New York City Subway. At least one of those ads was defaced by an Egyptian-American journalist, who defended her illegal actions on the basis of free speech.
When I saw the headline describing the ads, I was rightfully taken aback. One of the ads, which allegedly quotes Hamas MTV (is their version as vile as the American one?) and which includes a picture of a face-covered Islamic militant, simply says:
“Killing Jews is Worship and Draws Us Close to Allah.”
The tagline for the ad asks the question, “That’s his Jihad? What’s yours?” This whole advertising campaign, which has been condemned by government leaders and Islamic groups in San Francisco, was itself a response to an earlier ad campaign sponsored by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR’s bus ads, in trying to redefine “Jihad” away from perhaps its most well-understood definition, ” A Muslim holy war or spiritual struggle against infidels,” used questions like:
“My Jihad is to build friendships across the aisle.”
“My Jihad is to stay fit despite my busy schedule.”
“My Jihad is to not to judge people by their cover.”
After each question on the individual bus ads, the tagline read: “What’s yours?” meaning, what is your own personal struggle or Jihad? The purpose of the “MyJihad” campaign, according to their website is:
MyJihad is a public education campaign that seeks to share the proper meaning of Jihad as believed and practiced by the majority of Muslims. Jihad means “struggling in the way of God”. The way of God, being goodness, justice, passion, compassion, etc. It is putting up the good fight against whatever odds or barriers you face in your life. It is a central tenet of the Islamic creed that has unfortunately been widely misrepresented due to a) first and foremost, the actions of Muslim extremists, b) attempts at public indoctrination by Islamophobes who claim that the extremists are right and the rest of us are wrong, and c) a selective media that understandably focuses on the sensational. This campaign is about reclaiming our faith and its concepts from extremists, both Muslim and anti-Muslim. It’s about our voice, our lives, our reality. MyJihad includes displaying public ads on buses & trains, the use of #MyJihad hashtag on twitter, outreach on Facebook and Youtube, as well as speaking events and other initiatives. This is more than an ad campaign or a social media buzz. This is a movement of self-expression. (myjihad.org)
Does Ms. Geller and the American Freedom Defense Institute have the First Amendment right to place their ads on San Francisco buses? Obviously they do, just as the organizers of “MyJihad” had the right to place their ads on the city’s buses at the beginning of the year. Perhaps the better question would be, “Whose ads are more effective?” In San Francisco, that is not even a close question. But, even if the ads were not in one of the most liberal cities in America, I think that Ms. Geller’s messages — even if truthful (although I would be loathe to use MTV from any country as a source for the veracity of my claims) — do not effectively communicate to the majority of Americans.
Why? Because the underlying message of AFDI’s ads is negative in tone. I won’t go so far as to say that the message is rooted in “hate” because I do not know the intent of Ms. Geller and her organization. However, just because something is legal to do (i.e., burning a Koran) does not make it right. Truth might very well be a defense for the ads in question, but that does not mean that the ads themselves were wise in the first place. There has been and will continue to be an intense struggle (“jihad”) over what is true and what is false when it comes to Islamofascism and Islamophobia. In that struggle for truth, we must always take the road less traveled — the road of the Golden Rule and love for our neighbor — even when it would be easier to throw bombs (figuratively speaking)!