A series of new anti-jihad ads debuting in New York subways this week have received mixed reviews from locals, with some in support of the pro-Israel message and others worried about their effect on public safety.
The ads, which read "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man; Support Israel. Defeat Jihad," debuted in 10 stations on Monday to coincide with the beginning of this year's United Nations General Assembly.
The ads were sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (FDI), headed by conservative blogger Pamela Geller, and have also appeared in public transit in San Francisco.
Although the ads were originally rejected as discriminatory by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), a Manhattan federal judge ruled in July the ads were protected under the First Amendment right to free speech.
Some New Yorkers agreed with the judge's ruling and said it is a slippery slope from restricting to ending free speech.
"On one hand, I'm a bit bothered that the ads bring what I view as a foreign conflict to American soil. On the other hand, I am a firm supporter of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech. The reference to 'savages' is over the top, but within the bounds of free speech," Megan Needham, a lawyer working in Manhattan told RTTNews.
Ashima Chitre, an architect who attended Yale University but grew up overseas, largely in the Middle East, had a different view of the ads.
"I think they are absurd," Chitre told RTTNews. "I can't believe that a federal court judge would overrule, citing the First Amendment as grounds. That's just twisting the First Amendment around to suit your agenda. Obviously the First Amendment is important, but it should go both ways, it should also protect the people who are against the ads."
Chitre is also has public safety concerns about the ads, two of which are posted in the high-traffic stations at Port Authority and Times Square.
"I definitely think the ads will compromise public safety," Chitre told RTTNews. "People are just trying to get to work, go home, go about their day. There is no reason to read hateful messages on a government-approved/funded billboard."
Although they also disagree with the premise of the ad, the American Islamic Congress (AIC), a non-profit headquartered in Washington, D.C., stated they believe in the right of the FDI to post the ads.
"First and foremost, we support freedom of speech and the First Amendment," AIC Executive Director Zainab Al-Suwaij told RTTNews before the ads debuted.
"Do we like what the ads say? No. Nor is it a helpful contribution to our ongoing national dialogue, especially in this environment of heightened tensions. However, they have a right to state their opinion, and that's where America's greatness resides," Al-Suwaij added.
This week, Al-Suwaij followed up with RTTNews, saying, "We are all against the violence of the jihadists [and] I think people are free to express their opinion."
"But it's a matter of just sensitivity," she added. "I think people should be more sensitive."
Many of the ads have already been defaced by local artists and activists. The most public protest of the signs was undertaken this week by former Reuters' journalist Mona Eltahawy, who was arrested for spray-painting the signs.
Within hours of their posting, up to seven of the other 10 signs were also altered by street-artist and blogger Philip Weiss to include a "HATE SPEECH" stamp.
Muslim-American Amaan Siddiqi, an E.R. doctor and Baltimore native living in Brooklyn, called the ads "ludicrous" and a sign Muslim Americans don't have enough cohesive support in the U.S. to defend themselves from political attacks.
Although FDI's Geller denied being anti-Muslim, pointing out she never referred to Islam in the ads, but only to "Jihad," Siddiqi said, "The use of the word 'Jihad' to oppose 'Israel,' as in 'Support Israel, Defeat Jihad' may just as well be replaced by the word Muslim."
"I see these posters creating some controversy for sure, but without a cohesive support for Muslims, or a real understanding of the American people to differentiate Muslims versus terrorists or so-called Jihadists, I don't see the ads coming down any time soon," he added.
Geller meanwhile continued to defend the ads this week, crediting the MTA for deciding not to take them down and instead opting to include a "disclaimer" on all "political" ads placed in New York subways from now on.
"Despite critical media and the howling mob of miscreants, political, cause-related ads will run," Geller wrote on her blog, Atlas Shrugs.
"All political ads will have to have a disclaimer, but as long as this is applied evenhandedly to all ads, not just to ones the MTA or PC police or sharia enforcers don't like, it's fine," she added.
The MTA disclaimer will state "This is a paid advertisement sponsored by [Sponsor]. The display of this advertisement does not imply MTA's endorsement of any views expressed."
Geller is now suing the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to place the same ads in metro stations in the nation's capital. As of last week, metro authorities said they have not blocked the ads but have postponed a ruling "given current world events."
Anti-American sentiment is running high in Muslim-majority countries after a U.S.-produced video depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud and child molester.
Riots resulting in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, and many local protesters have only spread in recent weeks.
However, Needham, speaking to RTTNews Thursday, said free speech should never be curtailed even in the face of possible violence here at home.
"I'm not too concerned about the ads causing a threat to public safety, and if there are threats to public safety as a result of the ads, that almost heightens my support for the free speech rights of those paying for the ads," Needham told RTTNews.
"I think the U.S. will cease to maintain its identity if we allow the fear of violence to curb our free speech rights," she added.
Siddiqi also believes there will not be public safety threats resulting from the ads but for a different reason - the inherent peacefulness of the demonstrations carried out by activists so far.
"There will be - and already have been - people protesting or trying to deface these signs, but the same young politically active individuals have not shown any tendency to violence," Siddiqi told RTTNews.
"Those who have shown such tendencies, namely Islamic radicals, have not demonstrated fast response times to make their usually calculated extreme reaction - at least in this country."
by RTT Staff Writer
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