#ProudSavage in a #HateFreeNYC

(Note: Since I wrote this, there have been developments as the “Savage” ads have appeared in Washington, DC and also in San Francisco.)

All this furor about 10 ads? And who is Pamela Geller anyway!??

When I heard about @monaeltahawy’s arrest for defacing a racist / hateful ad, my first thoughts were, “Commercial speech trumps political speech & protest?” Graffiti is probably not protected as free speech, and Ms. Eltahawy did deface somebody’s property. Yet, Ms. Eltahawy’s speech is political, and I hope charges against her be dismissed. At least she was not held long!

Interestingly, Ms. Geller was only able to force the MTA to post her ads because they were deemed to be political speech. The MTA refused the ads originally, alleging the word “savage” violated its policy on not permitting demeaning language in advertising. Then, Judge Paul A. Engelmayer denied the MTA’s claim, finding the ads from Pamela Geller’s the American Freedom Defense Initiative (“AFDI”) were political speech, as they were pro-Israel. The MTA may nonetheless be revising its non-commercial advertising regulations following the controversy over the AFDI’s 10 new ads.

Pamela Geller & hate speech, never far apart

Ms. Geller rejects the claim that her speech (or the AFDI’s) is hate speech. Instead, she casts herself as a victim of censorship and terror. Anyone trying to get her to desist from putting up her posters serves America’s enemies (she alleges). Her supporters also have protested that her right to speech was curtailed by having a response to hateful speech incorporated into the posters themselves. (Just who is Pamela Geller? Here’s a good summary of this preposterously cantankerous and hate-filled woman. According to the noted Southern Poverty Law center, The AFDI is a hate group.)

How are these ads “racist”?

The ads are not hateful simply because the SPLC (which I very much respect) has listed the AFDI as a hate group. I find the ads hateful, or “racist” because of their reductionism.

In what to some might look like a smart move, Pamela Geller seeks to establish “Israel” and “Jihad” as opposing concepts. It’s simple and simplistic. As though in any conflict, there is not enough wrong to go around, and as though the two opposite groups are Israel and Jihad (as opposed to Israel and Palestine, maybe, or even ultra-nationalist Israelis and people of all nations, including Israeli citizens, who want to hold Israel to account for its policies and some wrongful behavior… See… way too complicated.).

The reductionist argument of the ads is seductive in its simplicity.

What’s discriminatory, hateful, and racist about it is that it paints everyone who may oppose or criticize Israel not only as wrong, but as a violent extremist. It implies that anyone Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim, whatever their actual opinions, are also violent extremists (as they might presumably be critical of Israel more often than some others).

Ms. Geller’s approach is racist in that it ascribes to an entire group of people a unitary perspective. It says: if you are a member of this group, we know exactly what you believe and how you will behave. Given antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, complete this sentence, “All Jews are…” You know that kind of framework is wrong. So, too, “All Arabs are…” is a racist and bigoted statement. Diversity in every group renders such statements impossible. Racism is reductionist by definition.

The not-so-subtle coded language of “civilized” vs. “savage” also is racist.

I grew up in a post-colonial context, very aware of how these terms which encapsulate racist attitudes about non-Whites were the justification for colonialism, and suffering in the Global South. “White Man’s Burden” as Kipling put it, or the “mission civilizatrice” as the French called it (the civilizing mission): colonialism, the theft of land, the subjugation of indigenous people, all were justified because of the need to “civilize” the “savage.” The legacy of pain and violence that accompany these racist concepts is undeniable. Yet can we believe Pamela Geller used this terminology with irony? It is doubtful.

Lastly, the AFDI ad twists the meaning of “jihad” in Islam (more on that below). It’s all strategic: delegitimize your opponent, reduce them to a stereotype, and people will never listen to or see them the same way. Racism is a powerful strategy. It is more than sad for many who actually do support Israel to see racism used as the tool to mobilize support.

Racism as a political strategy not new

Pamela Geller did not invent this strategy. She is simply the latest in a long line of people who felt the best way to guarantee support to Israel was to demonize any of its actual or potential opponents. These folks have worked tirelessly to “brand” Islam and all Muslims, as well as Palestinians and all Arabs, as terrorists, violent extremists.

There were and are some Muslim extremists, but they are a small minority among the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

Let’s be clear, Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism were not created by ardent supporters of Israel. It is simply that the more reprehensible among supporters of Israel have leveraged it as I have described.

The result of the strategy is fairly simple, at least at first: when we hear about a conflict between Israel and an Arab state, or between Israel and some if its own Arab citizens, or perhaps the Palestinians under Israeli occupation, we are meant to automatically think, “Israel good. Israel civilized. Israel like us. That Other (Muslim, Palestinian, Arab, etc.), bad.”

Geller’s logic and branding falls apart if you understand the complexity of the situation. Anyone who objects to the injustices occurring under Israel’s occupation, or who supports Palestinians’ rights to retain their land, would be termed Jihadi Savage according to Geller, including the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem. At the same time, if everything Israeli is civilized, how does Geller explain the testimony of Israeli soldiers about their violent abuse of Palestinian minors in their custody? Is the abuse of innocent children “civilized” behavior? (I would suggest that the testimony is. But how many did not evince this level of conscience?) What about the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has documented the systematic exclusion and discrimination Arab citizens of Israel face in varied sectors (housing, education, emoployment, access to water, etc.)? Is ACRI comprised of a bunch of “savages.” Is discrimination and exclusion, “civilized?” (Side note: some, maybe many?, in Israel are tired of being pawns in Pamela Geller et alia’s Islamophobic campaigns.)

What exactly is “Jihad”?

“Jihad,” in Arabic, has more than one connotation

  1. Its primary meaning is the internal, personal struggle each Muslim must wage to be a better person, to live out their faith.
  2. A secondary meaning is the struggle to build a good Muslim society.
  3. A third and last meaning is “holy war” with non-Muslims in defense of Muslims (Islam permits war, or violence, but ONLY in self-defense, and it must be proportional). This is the least important meaning of the three.

To those in the know, Pamela Geller’s simplification and erasure of the more significant personal elements (the “inside job” or internal struggle each of us faces to be a better person) were also deeply offensive. But Ms. Geller pays her bills by slandering Islam and promoting hatred towards Muslims; can one expect respect or fairness from such a person?

Ms. Geller has artfully exploited the fact that in the West, “Jihad” mostly means “holy war,” and most definitely without any attendant understanding that there may be an aggrieved party fighting a defensive struggle (Jihad is not like President Bush’s Doctrine of Pre-emption.).

It is sad the first two meanings are not as commonly known.

It is deplorable that a minority of Muslims who are violent extremists (and yes, they are out there) have hijacked the term along with the likes of Geller, seeking to justify or sanctify violence, popularizing a twisted version of the third meaning of the term.

How did this minority (no doubt Pamela Geller is thrilled) come to represent Islam to the West, though they are a minority? If you really believe this minority represents all Muslims I would suggest you reconsider: imagine if the 1.5 billion of Muslims on this planet were all like them?!! They are a minority, or the world would be in much worse shape.

Reclaiming “Jihad”

We cannot deny that these extremists exist or that their twins do, the Islamophobes who happily reduce Islam to the single strand represented by the militants. But we can reclaim the word.

The Twitterverse recently witnessed a new campaign, #MyJihad, an attempt to take back the ground from these doppelgangers, Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim extremists (like Pamela Geller). Here are some of the tweets:

Not as savage as she thinks

Ms. Geller and her cabal can only convince the public that she is right and that all Arabs, Muslims, and critics of Israel are violent extremists if those people do not speak up or their stories are not told. The Geller AFDI hate speech created an opportunity for American Muslims to educate our neighbors and friends through the Twitter #MyJihad campaign about some part of what being Muslim is (and what Jihad means to most Muslims). Similarly, offline, each of us who is an Arab or a Muslim, has the opportunity to challenge the hateful branding the Pamela Gellers of the world have been slinging.

Decent-minded non-Muslims and non-Arabs folks also seized the opportunity to speak up. The Jewish group Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, and the Christian group Sojourners both created pro-Muslim and anti-bigotry ads to counter the AFDI ads: The RHR-NA ad says, “In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors”; the Soujourners ad says, “Love your Muslim neighbor.”

I’ll leave you with an article profiling 8 remarkable Muslims, 8 examples of “uncivilized savages” (to Pamela Geller), profiled by Sami Kishawi. Please read it. It is a positive story, something we see too seldom in the news—and when it comes to Muslims, in the West at least, especially so. It’s also a great place to close this post, because, as Mr. Kishawi says:

Whether or not the American Freedom Defense Initiative will retract its awful advertisements implying Muslims are naturally savage and uncivilized should be of no concern. The fact of the matter is that Muslims have played great roles in developing the technology we use, advancing the liberties that we covet, and forming life-long connections with ourselves and our neighbors. The eight examples above are but a minuscule fraction of the vast number of everyday Muslims (and everyday non-Muslims) doing everyday things to positively impact the world we live in. If Geller thinks this is savagery, well, who cares. It’s the kind of “savagery” the world needs to see more of.

It’s enough to make me call myself a #ProudSavage.

Related Links:

A Muslim, Palestinian-American defends Pamela Geller’s right to free speech, but still finds them immoral and unnecessary, impeding our growth toward a hate-free American, http://www.citylimits.org/conversations/181/islam-free-speech-and-the-mta.

An organization of Jews who fight against Islamophobia denounces the Pamela Geller ads, http://www.jewsagainstislamophobia.org/?p=412.

Several Jewish groups that work in interfaith coalition and to build Muslim-Jewish understanding condemn the Pamela Geller ads, http://forward.com/articles/163366/jewish-groups-object-to-anti-muslim-ad/.

A Rabbi and strong supporter of Israel calls the ads legal, wrong, and repugnant, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/25/opinion/the-sin-of-sowing-hatred-of-islam.html?smid=tw-share.

The Muslim advocacy group CAIR urges responses to the bigoted ad to be civil, saying, “An assault on human dignity requires a dignified response,” http://www.cair-ny.org/blog/stay_civilized_nyc_a_civilized_response_to_mta_hate_ads.html.

Talk Back to Hate Campaign:  http://talkbacktohate.org.

Muslims for Progressive Values Campaign, “Allah Loves Us All“.


5 thoughts on “#ProudSavage in a #HateFreeNYC

  1. Great commentary. Geller has infested the Washington, DC subway with her hatred and racism. People of good conscious–Christians, Muslims and Jews–in the area are combating the signage with counter ads and protests at the subway stops where they’re located. We do not sit idly by and let the violence gain a foot hold in the minds and hearts of the common human being.

  2. Metro is getting ready to place disclaimers on all the ads, too. They understand their responsibilities under free speech and as part of the community fabric, thank goodness.

  3. I am happy you are taking the opportunity to explain the things Geller has represented so inaccurately. This post is thorough and informative, which stands out in harsh contrast against the shocking ad campaign.

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