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Controversial Anti-Muslim Ads Coming to New York City Transit

Posted on September 24, 2014

"We review every viewpoint ad under the standards, but a series of court rulings have made clear that our hands are largely tied."

Original source: Newsweek, Sep. 24, 2014

A controversial new ad campaign featuring an image from James Foley's execution video and describing the presence of a "jihadi threat" in America will join some New Yorkers on their public transportation commutes this month.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative, run by blogger and activist Pamela Geller, has paid $100,000 to place a series of ads at two subway stations and on the backs of 100 buses for four weeks.

The goal of the campaign, Geller tells Newsweek, is to "put an end to the denial and willful ignorance about that threat [of jihad in America] so that we can adopt effective counterterror measures." The term jihad refers to a holy war or personal struggle done in devotion to Islam.

The ads, which will start to appear September 29, have already attracted a wave of criticism from New York faith leaders, elected officials and advocacy groups. Take on Hate, a campaign sponsored by the National Network for Arab American Communities, called on New Yorkers to "denounce the anti-Muslim hate advertisements" at a rally outside City Hall on Tuesday.

"These ads are outrageous, inflammatory and wrong, and have no place in New York City, or anywhere," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement to the New York Daily News on Friday. "While those behind these ads only display their irresponsible intolerance, the rest of us who may be forced to view them can take comfort in the knowledge that we share a better, loftier and nobler view of humanity."

Geller's organization placed a round of ads in the NYC transit system in 2012. The MTA initially refused to sell the group advertising space, but it sued under the First Amendment and won. A federal court found that the MTA's standard of rejecting ads containing "images or information that demean an individual or group of individuals on account of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation" was unconstitutional, the MTA said in 2012.

As a result of the ruling, the MTA revised its rules and allowed Geller's ads to run in 10 subway stations. However, all paid viewpoint ads must now contain a disclaimer that they do "not imply MTA's endorsement of any views expressed."

"We review every viewpoint ad under the standards, but a series of court rulings have made clear that our hands are largely tied," Kevin Ortiz, deputy director of external communications for the MTA, tells Newsweek.

The campaign will feature six different designs. One shows two images of journalist James Foley's executioner, apparently illustrating the life of the suspected British citizen before and after joining the Islamic State group, commonly known as ISIS. On the left, he is pictured wearing a red tracksuit and singing in a sound booth. On the right, he stands next to the kneeling Foley, dressed in black from head to toe but for a slit for his eyes, in what appears to be a screen grab from the video ISIS released of Foley's beheading on August 19.

The text reads: "Yesterday's moderate is today's headline."

This particular ad "points up the uselessness of the distinction between 'moderate' and 'extremist' Muslims," Geller wrote on Breitbart, a conservative news and opinion site.

Two of the designs are returning from the group's 2012 campaign. One shows a black and white photo of Adolf Hitler with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and reads, "Jew-hatred: It's in the Quran." It calls for the end of all U.S. aid to Islamic countries.

Geller calls the advertisements an "education campaign" and says they were not anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic but anti-jihad. "Clearly not all Muslims support jihadi doctrine," she tells Newsweek, but "we don't have to pat on the back every Muslim that doesn't want to kill us."

The ads cross the line from freedom of speech into hate speech, says Linda Sarsour, senior strategist for the campaign Take on Hate. "When you're trying to equate Muslim neighbors with vicious ISIS terrorists, that's as anti-Muslim as you can get," she says. "We think these ads will fuel more hatred and potential violence against innocent New Yorkers."

The MTA rejected one design from the latest campaign that featured the phrase "Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah," with MTA Director of Safety and Security Raymond Diaz saying in a press release that it "would lead reasonable observers to interpret it as urging direct, violent attacks on Jews, given turmoil in Gaza, Syria and Iraq and New York City's heightened security concerns."

Sarsour says the campaign comes at a tense time, citing a report by the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force of a 143 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes from last year. There were 14 attacks targeting the Muslim community since July 1 of this year.

The campaign will run at the busy Columbus Circle station and 59th Street stop on the Lexington Avenue line in Manhattan as well as on 100 buses, compared with just 10 subway station slots in 2012. 

"This time around, more people will have more access and these ads will be a lot more visible," Sarsour said.

Ziv, Stav. "Controversial Anti-Muslim Ads Coming to New York City Transit." Newsweek. N.p., 24 Sept. 2014. Web.