Engy Abdelkader: Muslims Redefining Community
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sometimes expressions of community manifest at unexpected yet necessary moments.
Illustrative is the American response to the recent proliferation of anti-Muslim hate advertisements on government owned public transit systems in cities around the country.
From San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to Detroit to Chicago to New York, daily commuters have confronted a well-orchestrated hate campaign to defame and demean American Muslims and their Islamic faith:
The incendiary transit advertisements may differ in wording but the message is undoubtedly uniform: hatred for Islam and against its adherents.
This unfortunate messaging has garnered considerable media attention while also culminating in First Amendment litigation in at least three distinct jurisdictions — Washington, D.C., Detroit, Michigan and New York City — when well-meaning transit authorities rejected the ads, citing likely stigmatic effects upon American Muslims in some instances and national security concerns in others.
Not always as prominently highlighted, however, is the larger U.S. community response rejecting the denigration of any faith group with messages underscoring the significance of peace and pluralism.
Consider, for instance, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (“Muni”) system’s response to the ads. Its Chairman released a public statement condemning the ads as lacking “value in facilitating constructive dialogue or advancing the cause of peace and justice.”
Moreover, Muni donated the ad proceeds to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission to further constructive educational activities, and in an unprecedented move, Muni placed its own counter-ads on San Francisco buses condemning the AFDI ads next to which they appeared.
Significantly, Muni’s initiative set the bar that community advocates would request their respective transit officials to meet.
In addition to such official speech, perhaps the most innovative and arguably talked about response to AFDI’s hate ads was a peaceful Twitter campaign, launched by American Muslims, with the hash tag “#MySubwayAd.”
Representative tweets include:
“In NYC we speak 140 languages and hate isn’t one of them.”
“In any subway you ride, anywhere in the world, may it be a one way journey from fear to love and ignorance to light.”
“We all are the same. Keep love going. Sofia, age 4.”
“Hatred won’t ever work as a solution, but it will always be a part of the problem. Don’t fight hate with hate.”
By launching such a campaign to counter the advertisements’ hateful message, the minority Muslim community demonstrated courage and initiative while concurrently undermining entrenched stereotypes concerning Muslim anger, intolerance and violence. Further, Muslims employed “good speech” effectively in the proverbial marketplace of ideas to morally defeat a message of division and hate, engaging in an important process of self-empowerment and community education.
Finally, the interfaith response, by Christians and Jews alike, was nothing short of tremendous.
The Anti-Defamation League publicly characterized the “Savages” ad, for instance, as “offensive and inflammatory,” while elaborating, “AFDI presents itself as a pro-Israel group. Our sense is that it’s just a mischaracterization of who they are. They are an anti-Muslim activist group, and you don’t have to be anti-Muslim to be pro-Israel.”
Notably, Rabbis for Human Rights – North America and the Christian group Sojourners launched respective counter-ad campaigns. The ad by Rabbis for Human Rights, which ran near AFDI’s ad, says, “In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.” The Sojourners ad simply says, “Love your Muslim neighbors.”
Both ads initially ran in NYC’s subway system as did another counter-ad by another Christian group, United Methodist Women, which read, “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.”
Also in New York, the Commission of Human Rights worked to counter the anti-Muslim subway ads that tout the Big Apple’s diversity. The billboard features a red apple with a map of the world that looks like bites. It reads: “From many countries, one city.”
The interfaith initiatives are significant to strengthening community relationships and in rejecting the extremist messages of anti-hate groups domestically.
But the ripple effect has international consequence as well.
One of al Qaeda’s greatest recruitment and propaganda tools is the assertion that the West is at war with Islam and Muslims — an argument that is strengthened every day by those who suggest all Muslims are terrorists and all those practicing Islam are jeopardizing U.S. security. Interfaith and other community initiatives, such as those described above, directly undermine al Qaeda’s false assertions.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without a community of good conscience committed in its stance against bigotry.
In truth, the censorship and suppression of objectionable hate speech is a natural knee-jerk reaction particularly by those targeted. But sometimes, the unintended consequence of such a response is the transformation of hate speech perpetrators like Pam Geller into victims of government censorship, deprived of one’s First Amendment rights. Perversely, the perpetrator becomes the victim.
Perhaps, it is preferable to allow the hate advertisements to stand (no matter how painful and hurtful the message) while seizing the moment to educate. To this end, it bears noting that following the placement of the hate ads, FOX News was forced to disavow the subway initiative describing it as “inflammatory” and “anti-Muslim.” This is remarkable because the anti-Muslims activists responsible for the placards are frequent favorites on the network. Arguably, the hate placards serve an educative purpose concerning the perverse values of those behind them.
Often, when Muslims in the U.S. reference “the community,” they are alluding to fellow co-religionists. Perhaps there is a silver lining to the anti-Muslim hate ads: an opportunity to redefine the traditional parameters of that reference to encompass so many more.