Currently, Islamophobic ads that link Hitler with Muslims and read “Islamic Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran” are posted on SEPTA buses in Philadelphia (these are the same ads that have been posted before in New York and San Francisco). The ads are funded by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), an anti-Muslim organization that is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to CBS Philly, the group “paid about $30,000 for the advertisements that will be featured on 84 Septa vehicles for four weeks.”
There have been many advertising campaigns to counter these ads. For instance, when the AFDI posted their ads in Chicago, the local CAIR chapter launched a “My Jihad” campaign that featured cheerful images of Muslim Americans sharing their daily struggles, goals, and experiences. The campaign aimed to challenge misconceptions about the term “jihad,” but also sought to highlight on positive images of Muslims. Examples of the ads can be seen below:
In Philadelphia, a similar initiative called “Dare to Understand” has been organized by the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia to counter the Islamophobic ads. Photographs of smiling Muslims based in Philadelphia are being posted on billboards and social media. As well-intentioned these responses are, my concern is with the framework these campaigns operate within and the implications they carry for Muslims.
It is important to note that many local religious and non-religious community leaders have publicly condemned the Islamophobic ads. While SEPTA tried to stop the ads, it is disappointing that they refused to appeal a federal court ruling that ordered them to post the ads on their buses. It is also incredibly disappointing and disturbing that CAIR-PA, the local CAIR chapter of Philadelphia, released a statement that supported the “free speech” ruling of the Islamophobic ads. The statement reads, “These ads are despicable and false, but fall under First Amendment protections.” Another representative concurred and added, “The First Amendment protects everyone, the hateful and the loving alike. Instead of suppressing dishonest and offensive speech, the American tradition is to respond with speech of our own. You can be sure we will.” Although CAIR-PA condemns the content of the ads, they agree with AFDI that these ads are “protected speech.”
For those who are unaware, CAIR represents the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States and the amount of work they do for Muslim Americans is both important and needed. This does not, however, mean that CAIR is beyond criticism. It is shocking to me that the organization would be seemingly unaware that its statement supports a situation that conflicts with the right for Muslims to feel safe on public transportation. In fact, CAIR-PA did express concern for Muslims in the city and stated, “One can only imagine the revulsion that tens of thousands of Muslim citizens will feel getting onto SEPTA buses.” Yet it is not just revulsion, but also a legitimate fear and concern for safety that many Muslims feel, especially those who have to board these buses daily. What about SEPTA Muslim employees who have to drive these buses? A lot of times when we talk about racism, we tend to overlook how much stress (including the stress of anticipating racism) and trauma it can cause. What is being done for the safety and well being of SEPTA’s Muslim passengers and employees? These ads are not just loathsome, they are targeting us. I hate playing the broken record on my blog about how much media images matter, but these ads target us in the same way films like American Sniper or TV shows like “Homeland” demonize and target us. We need to connect these ads to very real and dangerous consequences they have, not just on Muslims in the United States and other western countries, but also on Muslims who are targeted by imperialist wars and military occupations in Muslim-majority countries.
If ads that demonize Islam and Muslims are considered “free speech,” then does this mean CAIR, the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, SEPTA, and the federal court would consider anti-Jewish ads or swastikas posted on buses, billboards, and subways “protected free speech,” too? As a friend pointed out, if a Muslim group proposed anti-Judaism ads, would that be considered “freedom of expression”? The latter would not even get off the ground because they would be rightfully and immediately condemned as anti-Semitism, hate speech, and inciting violence. I wrote this before in my post on the Paris attacks, but when Islam and Muslims are demonized, it’s called “free speech.” This reflects western hypocrisy about “free speech,” and should raise awareness about whom this “freedom” is really for, whom does it really protect, etc. Furthermore, the hypocrisy reflects the frightening reality of how normalized and acceptable demonization of Islam and Muslims is.
The danger of working within the “free speech” framework is that it legitimizes violent anti-Muslim hate speech as “free speech” (no matter how unintentional this may be). Even though organizations and individuals who condemn these ads are developing counter-campaigns, recognizing the ads as “free speech” does little, if anything, to disrupt and challenge the status quo. Consider this statement from the Chicago chapter of CAIR when talking about countering the AFDI ads, “I don’t feel the urge to fight … I’d rather put out the alternative. People can decide what racism is.”
And what if people decide the ads are not racist or Islamophobic? The courts have already decided that these ads are not racist, otherwise they would be banned. The politics of letting people “decide” what is racist, again, legitimizes racist views as valid. Rather than relying on these strategies, Muslim civil rights groups need to take a bold, firm, and courageous anti-racist stance against Islamphobic hate speech. Putting out cheerful and smiling images of Muslims may seem like effective responses that challenge Islamphobic sentiments, but these images are also reinforcing a certain type of Muslim that is deemed palatable to the white non-Muslim American mainstream. I’ll expand more on this later.
AFDI has posted Islamophobic ads in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and now Philadelphia (sorry if I missed any others), but how long are these ads going to be tolerated in the name of “free speech”? Should we just continue to expect Muslims and their allies to organize counter-campaigns each time something like this happens? The AFDI will continue to raise more funds and get these ads posted in other cities. This is a cycle of abuse that we cannot afford to let continue, especially during a time when murders against Muslims in the west (namely the recent murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, Razan Abu-Salha, Mustafa Mattan, and Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein) and imperialist violence against Muslims around the world are on the rise. The counter-campaigns thus far have only been short-term efforts. We need counter campaigns that think long-term and work towards structural change, which includes putting pressure on courts to end Islamophobic hate speech.
When Suzanne Barakat, the sister of Deah Barakat, went on CNN and MSNBC, she explicitly condemned the way the western mainstream media and Hollywood films like American Sniper continue to dehumanize Muslims and lead to deadly consequences. When I did my undergraduate research study on the effects of Islamophobia on Muslim American emerging adults, all of the Muslim participants agreed that the media poorly represented their faith and community. These concerns about the media are not just about fear of being offended, but also fear of being vilified, discriminated against, physically assaulted, bullied, profiled, spied upon, deported, detained, shot at, and/or killed. We need organizations like CAIR, SEPTA, and the Interfaith Center of Great Philadelphia to seriously acknowledge the impact that media images and anti-Muslim propaganda ads have upon us and the way they further shape racist attitudes, perceptions, and policies towards Muslims.
The other problem with making this about “free speech” is that it places the burden on Muslims to “explain” themselves in counter-campaigns. AFDI, on the other hand, is never held accountable. The lack of accountability here is astonishing because it leaves Muslims to once again “prove” that they are not terrorists, not “Jew haters,” not war mongers, etc. Not only is there this burden to respond, but Muslims also have to see these ads in front of their faces in the city they live.
The images of “happy Muslims” in these counter-campaigns need to be critiqued as well. Much of my views on this performance of “normalcy” are similar to what I wrote in my post about the “Happy British Muslims” music video. Again, we see yet another example where the only legitimate response to Islamophobia consists of showing Muslims expressing only one emotion: happiness. The image of the happy Muslim is palatable to the white non-Muslim western mainstream for a number of reasons, but it also furthers the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” divide. The good Muslim challenges Islamophobia with a smile, often accompanied by an assimilationist narrative about how proud he/she is to be an American. These cheerful images are complementary to the non-threatening tactics of these counter-campaigns since they are focused on “celebrating diversity,” as opposed to actively calling for the removal of Islamophobic ads and demanding accountability. The Muslims who protest and demand for the latter get vilified as the “angry” and “bad Muslims.” They would also get labeled “bad PR.”
I believe images are powerful and I do not write this post to shame any of the counter-campaigns nor their participants. As an independent filmmaker myself, I recognize the importance of producing media that challenges racism, Islamophobia, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc. We need more representations of Muslims in the media, but too often, the responses to Islamophobia are simplistic and centered on showing how “normal,” “happy,” and “American” we are, as if the only way to qualify as human beings is if we are American (or Canadian or British or Australian, etc.) citizens. Muslims are not a monolithic group, so I’m not saying there shouldn’t be images of Muslims being happy or smiling. Instead, I’m arguing against a happy Muslim/angry Muslim binary that gets reinforced when the only acceptable responses to Islamophobia become about validating the racist views of the oppressor (e.g. calling Islamophobia “free speech”), “proving” to the white non-Muslim American mainstream that we are not terrorists, and promoting smiling images of ourselves for a “diversity” narrative that doesn’t challenge systematic oppression.
The “Dare to Understand” initiative had a white non-Muslim photographer take photos of Muslims smiling in their counter-ad campaign. This is not to say that white non-Muslims cannot be allies or help us challenge Islamophobia – they absolutely should. I address this only to point out how Muslims are so often silenced that we rarely see stories that are told through their lens or point of view. Muslims are speaking for themselves (whether on panels, news media, or through narrative films or documentary films, etc.) and it’s important to help amplify these voices (out of curiosity, were any local Muslim photographers and/or filmmakers contacted to lead these creative initiatives?). Our stories are important because they are far more complex and multi-layered than a PR campaign. We are much more than smiling faces that “showcase diversity.” We cannot simply be reduced to these happy images that only (and perpetually) smile in the face of oppression.
Lastly, if we are going to challenge Islamophobia, it is crucial that we be intersectional in our activism and stand in solidarity with other marginalized communities. When we invoke “free speech” and speak highly of the “American tradition,” we should be challenging the U.S. founding myths, as described by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, that these ideas originate from. We cannot deny the history that the United States could not have existed without the violent dispossession of Indigenous Peoples and slavery of Africans, nor can we deny the impact this history (and the systems of oppression that were established) has on people of color today. The double standards about “free speech” reveal much about whose speech is really protected and whose speech, rights, and bodies aren’t. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but instead of counter campaigns that frame these ads as “free speech” and place the burden on Muslims to “explain themselves,” I believe efforts and initiatives, especially from SEPTA, Muslim civil rights organizations, and allies, should be focused on appealing to the courts and demanding accountability.
We have the right to be protected from hate speech.