A recent ruling by a federal judge permitted the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) to display hateful advertisements on New York subway cars and buses. The tasteless ads relate the killing of Jews to Islamic teachings. This is nothing new for the AFDI. Since its inception in 2010, the AFDI has taken it upon itself to promote hateful advertisement by maligning the religious teachings of Islam under the flag of free speech. Pamela Geller, the self-proclaimed Islamophobe, organized the ad campaign. However, Geller fails to comprehend the long term consequences of the hate messages that may incite more anger and detestation in an already turbulent landscape. Although AFDI claims to exercise its right to free speech, it fails to realize the responsibilities that come with practicing the first amendment. The neglect of such responsibilities may be more harmful than even imagined.
Due to our fast paced media and modern-day technology, the ad campaign may quickly escalate in the hands of extremists such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab or the like. By displaying these ads AFDI has, once again, provided a legitimate excuse for terrorist organizations to practice their heinous acts which do not even come close to religious ideology. In fact, it will not be incorrect to say that AFDI has provided the extremists with the very thing they long for. The dire consequences will not be felt only on far flung lands. The ripple effect may be deeply felt here in America. Just recently, a bomb threat at the Statue of Liberty in New York City caused fear and distress. Though it turned out to be a hoax, nevertheless it created unrest.
Contrary to AFDI’s claim to educate, the interpretation of the message solely depends upon the knowledge and understanding of the viewer. If taken literally, the message may escalate the already inflating number of hate crimes due to religious beliefs. This would impact not only Muslims, but mainstream Jews and Christians as well. Many unfortunate recent incidents testify to hate inspired messages and ideology; shooting of three Muslim students at Chapel Hill being one of them.
We need to enforce the idea that free speech, when based on religious hatred, may be detrimental to the morals of a society as a whole. Hate messages on buses will not only negatively influence the thought processes but corrupt the minds of our youth who will watch these buses drive by every day. Raising children who develop an extremist ideology and intolerance of others is every sane parent’s worst nightmare.
It seems unlikely for such a negative message to produce a positive outcome, yet it is not impossible. Hate messages may encourage many curious minds to search for the truth. Many may find solace in the Book of Micah where it talks about harmony among nations as it says, “Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation.” (Micah 4:3) Some may embrace the teachings of tolerance in the New Testament: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whosoever ye do. Do all to the glory of God. Give no offence, neither to Jews, nor to the Gentiles.”(Corinthians 10:31-32) In addition, many may distinguish the Islamic teachings of acceptance and kind treatment of people of other faiths in the words of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as he said, “Beware, whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim Minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I will complain against the person on the day of judgement,” (Abu Dawud).
It is crucial to understand that true Islamic practices are not what Hamas, Al-Qaeda or ISIS portray. Hence, there is greater need to recognize that the true Islam is in practice when a Muslim youth leaves her seat in the subway for an elderly Jewish lady, or when a bearded Muslim man opens the restaurant door for a Christian customer, or when a hijab clad Muslim woman gives a big smile to a Hindu mother as she picks her daughter from Kindergarten school. As religious hate speech gets louder, we cannot remain elusive to the fact that such voices present a great risk of isolating us from one another. To rationally answer the anti-semitic and islamophobic ideology it is imperative that Jewish and Muslim communities create a united front and establish an open dialogue among each other. After all, these challenges are far more detrimental than spreading contemptuous messages against one another.
Lubna Qureshi is a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and a freelance writer for the Women’s Auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA. She is an Air Force wife and holds a Masters degree in Dietetics.