An anti-Islam group is preparing to plaster New York City buses with advertisements that defame Islam and use images from the recent execution of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest in the organization’s longstanding effort to recast Islam as an inherently violent religion.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and led by blogger Pamela Geller and writer Robert Spencer, announced recently that it plans to run six anti-Islam ads on more than 100 buses in New York City starting next week.
“Our ads are designed to raise awareness about the need for Muslims in the US not just to denounce ISIS, but to teach young Muslims why this understanding of Islam is wrong and must be rejected,” Geller wrote on her website. She claimed in another post that the campaign, “boldly tells truths that the U.S. government and the mainstream media seem determined to obfuscate.”
The ads, which make heavy use of shocking pictures and bold text, attempt to frame Islam as a violent religion that radicalizes its followers. One of the more unsettling ads features the now-iconic image of American journalist James Foley, who was recently beheaded by ISIS militants, kneeling next to his executioner. The picture is placed alongside more benign image of a man rapping into a microphone with the caption “executioner who beheaded reporter before he became a jihadist.” Both images sit underneath the title “Yesterday’s moderate is today’s headline.”
Other ads in the campaign call for the United States to “end all aid to Islamic countries,” and attempt to connect Hamas in Palestine to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an American Muslim organization that believes Islam is a peaceful religion, has condemned terrorism for years, and has passionately denounced ISIS as “un-Islamic and morally repugnant.”
CAIR Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper told ThinkProgress that while AFDI’s ads are deeply offensive to many Muslims, the extreme nature of the accusations is a tactic often used by anti-Islam groups to get attention and solicit funds.
“This is her usual schtick: anti-Muslim bigotry,” Hooper said, referring to Geller. “Basically what she does is go into a market and introduce the most inflammatory, defamatory remarks that she can possibly come up with, knowing that it will all give her free publicity. Then, if the [local transit authority] denies her, she sues and gets more publicity.”
Indeed, this isn’t the first time the AFDI has used public space to push messages that demonize Islam and Muslims. In 2012, the group posted ads in Washington, D.C. and NYC that referred to enemies of Israel as “savages,” and this summer it put posters on 20 buses in the U.S. capital that included an image of Adolf Hitler sitting next to Muslim leader Haj Amin al-Husseini underneath the caption, “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Quran.”
Ironically, the divisive ads have prompted compassionate responses from various groups, including a CAIR-sponsored campaign in Washington, D.C. where counter-ads were posted on bus routes that depicted a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew endorsing a peaceful passage from the Qur’an. CAIR also offered to give free Qur’ans to anyone who wished to understand the inaccuracy of ADFI’s claims. The United Methodist Women also bought their own counter-ads with the slogan “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed,” and the back-and-forth between various groups ultimately prompted the Washington Metro authorities (WMATA) to include a disclaimer on all of their “viewpoint” ads saying that messages “[do] not imply WMATA’s endorsement of any views express.”
And while a federal court ruling found that the New York City Metro Transit Authority (MTA) is required to run viewpoint ads regardless of their message (although MTA, like the WMATA, requires a disclaimer), the public transit authorities of Philadelphia (SEPTA) refused to allow AFDI ads on their buses this summer because it violated their policy prohibiting the “disparagement” or “ridicule” of any “person or group of persons on the basis of race, religious belief, age, sex, alienage, national origin, sickness or disability.” AFDI is now suing SEPTA, claiming their refusal to run the ads is a violation of free speech.
Following a wave of criticism decrying the ads as insensitive — including a plea from the parents of James Foley — Geller has asked transit authorities in New York City and San Francisco to pull the ad that uses an image of Foley just before he was beheaded. Geller announced on her blog that she plans to replace the posters with another version that shows Foley’s alleged killer holding the severed head of someone else.
Although Geller is removing the ads with images of Foley, the other posters are still set to be used. Meanwhile, the AFDI is suing the MTA for rejecting an ad that would have included the quote “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah.”