I traipsed lazily off the metro-north train after my 63-minute commute from Manhattan one day last week, returning to the comforts of my small, quaint hometown. Amid the familiar army of black and navy blue suits eager to join their families for dinner, I noticed a stark, black advertisement with red, white, and blue type: *19,250 DEADLY ISLAMIC ATTACKS SINCE 9/11/01 *AND COUNTING. IT’S NOT ISLAMOPHOBIA, IT’S ISLMAOREALISM.”
Since the billboard was first erected at the Katonah station, I have spent every morning and evening on the train gazing out the window as these billboards gradually litter the platforms of other train stations and subway stations. Who is sponsoring this? How is this legal? Why aren’t we up in arms? And finally, why am I not surprised?
Last Wednesday, August 15, Mother Jones magazine reported on these anti-Islam advertisements that have appeared on public transit in both New York and San Francisco. In addition to the ad I first saw at the Katonah station, the others imply that Muslims are “savages” and urge onlookers to “support Israel” and “defeat jihad.”
According to Mother Jones, the ads were sponsored by the anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller, who made headlines last year when she backed similar ads castigating a proposed Islamic community center near ground zero, calling it a “mega mosque” and a “victory mosque” that celebrated 9/11. She rose to prominence in the aftermath of 9/11 when she launched the anti-Muslim website, “Atlas Shrugs” in honor of her influencer, Ayn Rand. By mid-2010, she became a fixture on Fox News, commenting on foreign policy in the Middle East and the threat of Muslims and Shariah law in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League considers Geller’s organization ‘Stop Islamization of America’ a hate group.
Combined with her seething hatred of Islam, Geller’s other claims make it hard to define her as anything other than a white supremacist. She is a birther who has described Obama as beholden to his “Islamic overlords,” and that he wants jihad to be victorious in America. She has denied the existence of Serbian concentration camps in the 1990s. She believes that black South Africans are engaging in genocide against white South Africans, a popular justification that once helped legitimize apartheid, harking back to Charles Manning’s 1964 manifesto ‘In Defense of Apartheid.’
Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik cited Geller’s anti-Muslim rants in the manifesto he posted online just hours before killing 77 people at a left-wing youth camp last summer.
So the question becomes: how did this radical lunatic’s advertisements take some of the biggest advertising spaces visible to a huge cross-section of the city and suburbs of New York? How is this allowed?
Initially, the MTA rejected the “support Israel” and “defeat jihad” ad on the grounds of defamation towards a group on the basis of religion. Geller and her attorney sued the MTA, claiming that the ad referred to behavior, rather than to a group of people. They also cried the First Amendment. Ultimately, the ad did not violate the MTA and the San Francisco Muni’s ad policies, and here we are.
In a way, these ads are timely; they exemplify a summer of hate, a summer that has seen so many attacks against the way that Muslim people live, worship, and work.
Take, for instance, in July when Rep. Michele Bachmann and four other members of congress claimed that Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, is connected to a Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the U.S. government.
Also in July, Tea Party activists initiated a witch-hunt after Samar Ali, a former White House Fellow and current international director of Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development. After her appointment, a vocal group of conservatives and Tea Party activists claimed that Ali is a sleeper agent. Similarly after Ali’s appointment, The Center for Security Policy said in a blog post: “it is reasonable to expect that the financial jihadists will soon be targeting the volunteer state for infiltration and influence operations.”
The most disturbing instance of anti-Islamic sentiment this summer did not come from the mouth of a prominent politician, but rather, from the barrel of a gun. Earlier this month, Wade Page, an army veteran with ties to white supremacist groups opened fire on a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, ruthlessly murdering six worshippers there. While Sikhism is a religion distinct from Islam, the sentiment – or perhaps, intention – is the same, as many Sikhs have been targeted alongside Muslims since 9/11: if you worship differently, dress differently, and have brown skin, then you are a terrorist, and you will be targeted. It’s modern-day McCarthyism, and it is broadcasted on a billboard in Katonah.
The reason I felt compelled to write in response to the advertisement, rather than in response to Michele Bachmann, for instance, is because of the ethereal power advertising has. It didn’t take a manifesto or an article, just the brilliance of a simple and hateful ad campaign: 13 words that hark back to our fear in the wake of September 11. 13 words that justified the Patriot Act, the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. 13 words that will alienate children and influence the way their teachers teach them, that will alienate workers and the way employers hire them, that will alienate worshippers or burka-wearers or turban-wearers and the way that strangers treat them.
13 words that will prop up the Tea Party and influence public policy in this country.
13 words that will inspire others, out of hate, to violence.