If someone got physically violent on the Metro in Washington, DC, they would get kicked off the train or bus. Similarly, if someone indecently exposed him or herself (as noted in the new Metro ads threatening action against indecent exposure) or yelled incendiary, racist or bigoted comments at riders, they would get ushered off.
Yet, that is exactly what Metro will do to its riders, thanks to a court order by US District Judge Rosemary M Collyer forcing it to run the violent, indecent and incendiary ads by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) beginning Monday, October 8, 2012. The ad makes a sweeping generalisation about all Muslims, referring to them as savages and contrasting the savages with the civilised.
It is paradoxical. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) can prohibit riders from listening to loud music or consuming food or drink – the former of which is ostensibly out of respect for others, the latter is because of health and cleanliness concerns – and yet it cannot prohibit vitriolic ads, which hurt and harm, and are unhealthy.
The ad that WMATA, to its credit, tried to delay and that is already running in New York City’s subway, states: “In Any War Between the Civilised Man and the Savage, Support the Civilised Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
Since the ad makes no distinction between the majority of Muslims who use jihad non-violently and the small minority of Muslims who use violence and cite jihad as their defence, the ad intentionally creates a hyper-polarised, good-versus-evil frame through which to understand Islam.
“The US has a racist and discriminatory political pecking order that allows some prejudice to continue while prohibiting others.”
Nor does the AFDI ad make any distinction between the greater, internally oriented jihad, known as Akbar jihad, or the lesser externally oriented Asghar jihad. The former is an internal struggle that instructs a Muslim believer to be more righteous and pious; the latter is an external struggle that instructs a Muslim to defend against religious persecution. Neither is explicitly instructed to be violent and for the AFDI ad to intimate that anything jihad – and thus anything Muslim – is savage and must be defeated, the ad categorically calls all Muslims savages.
Prior to the US District Judge’s court ruling the Washington Post editorial board, disappointingly, defended the “offensive ad’s right to offend”, citing free speech. Contrast the Washington Post‘s approval with countless Jewish, Muslim and Christian organisations that have come out in protest of New York City subways’ running of the very same ads.
The freedom of speech argument is spurious. Why? Because if it were a different race or religion we’d have a whole different conversation and a lot more public protest. The US has a racist and discriminatory political pecking order that allows some prejudice to continue while prohibiting others.
Take, for example, the Washington Redskins or even the Cleveland Indians. We’d never allow – nor should we allow – a Washington Blackskins or a Washington Yellowskins. Nor would we have the Cleveland Jews. And yet, thanks to our prejudicial pecking order, we somehow justify keeping Native Americans – and in the ad’s case, Muslims – at the bottom of societal barrel, treating them in ways that we’d never tolerate for another race and religion.
It is ironic, in fact, that the US District judge is ordering WMATA to begin running the ads on Monday, which coincidentally is Columbus Day, a day that marks the man who began the genocide against indigenous Native Americans.
Our founding fathers and mothers would be ashamed at how we’re using free speech to freely and openly hate on each other. This gross manifestation is not what they fought for, nor should it be what we fight for now.
That is why I will boycott WMATA from the beginning of its savage and hateful ad run until the end of it. I get that it’s a court order but I do not want to support this kind of hate. I understand that our rights to free speech will, and should always be, protected in the public square, which is why, much to my chagrin, we witnessed this summer on the national mall, a march by the white supremacist Aryan Nation. But in forcing WMATA to take an ad buy, we have crossed the line of liberty. We are now no longer defending free speech we are defending hate speech. And that is hardly an America of which to be proud.
Michael Shank is adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, board member of the National Peace Academy, and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum.