Starting on Monday, September 24th, visitors to New York’s metro will be greeted with a strange advertisement.
The ad reads:
"In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."
The deliberately provocative advertisement had previously appeared in California, and had been ignored by most passengers there.
The New York posting of the advertisement has been planned to coincide with the large annual meeting of the United Nations general assembly gathering there.
The advertisement is sponsored by a shadowy organization that calls itself “American Freedom Defense Initiative.”
What is readily apparent is that the advertisement makes an association between “civilized man” and support for Israel on one hand, and “the savage” and “Jihad” on the other.
It seems good to make seven short observations about this provocative advertisement.
1) The language of “savages”, and the bifurcation of humanity into “savages” and “civilized man” is old—as old as European colonialism.
A key component of European colonialism was to posit Europeans as the bearers of “civilizations” in contrast to alleged “savages” in the lands being colonized. Today we are likely to speak of Indian Civilization, Chinese Civilization, Japanese Civilization, Egyptian Civilization, American Civilization, etc. [Some of us would also wish to pluralize each of those, so to speak of multiple and fluid American civilizations, Chinese civilizations, etc.] However, in the 19th century the European and American nations that colonized Asia, Africa, Native Americans, and Latin America spoke in the language of “civilization,” and its corresponding adjective “civilized”, in the singular: Some people (allegedly the Euro-American civilization) were said to be “civilized”, the rest of humanity were “savages” or in decline. It was this assertion of “savagery” (and its twin, “decline”) that made them—from the perspective of the supporters of Empire—to be in need of Colonial “intervention” to redeem them and bring them into civilization.
The pro-Israel ad in the New York Metro is tapping into this colonial legacy by dividing the world into the camp of alleged “civilized” pro-Israel people and “savage” peoples (supposedly Muslims).
2) Bearing “civilization” was part of a racist colonial message.
In the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the bearing of civilization was a racially charged and indeed racist colonial message. It was intertwined with the language of “White Man’s Burden”, carrying dark-skinned “savages” to the promised land of civilization.
The racist cartoon to the right is a reminder of this racist legacy of the language of “civilized” and “civilization.” This racist cartoon depicts a White man carrying the caricature of a dark-skinned African to the Promised Land of civilization and “progress”, in order to be “schooled.” [Thus the imagery of a “school” on the top of the shiny hill on the racist cartoon to the right.]
3) The advertisement perpetuates the racist language of early Zionism, while eroding support for a just and peaceful solution to the Palestinian/Israeli situation today.
The advertisement positions itself as being ardently “pro-Israel.” The person behind the NY Metro ad, Pamela Geller, herself admits that her agenda is indeed about Israel in a New York Times interview:
PAMELA GELLER ... “Now do I see everything through the prism of Israel? No, I don’t, but I do think it’s a very good guide. It’s a very good guide because, like I said, in the war between the civilized man and the savage, you side with the civilized man.”
It is this quote that shows up in a modified version on the New York Metro advertisement. What has been covered up in the advertisement is seeing things through the prism of Israel.
The early European Zionists who in the early 20th century imagined colonizing Palestine indeed spoke of being the bearers of “civilization” against the indigenous Palestinians, charged with being “barbaric savages.”
The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, displays this attitude in his own writing, which is filled with the arrogant colonial boast on behalf of European Jews:
“We should there form a portion of rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” [Emphasis added]
Of course one can be committed to Israel, and for that matter committed to Palestine, and more importantly the co-existence of Palestinians and Israelis, without spewing the kind of hatred that Geller is espousing. What is needed today, and urgently so, is a just and peaceful solution to Palestine/Israel that guarantees for all the citizens there, regardless of ethnicity and religion, the exact same level of rights and privileges, while assuring the safety and security that all citizens there are entitled to as human beings.
The pro-Israel ad in the New York Metro is tapping into and perpetuating a racist aspect of Zionism in the colonial era, instead of moving towards that just and peaceful solution.
4) The advertisement fundamentally and deliberately distorts the meaning of “jihad.”
The term Jihad is open to the same nuances as the term Crusade. One may speak of a crusade against drugs, or the Crusades of Billy Graham, or the medieval Crusades. In the context of the Qur’an, the term Jihad means a struggle that the faithful are told to undertake with their souls and beings. Jihad can be an internal struggle of purification against one’s own inner demons; it may be a social justice struggle against tyranny and oppression; and at times it may be a justified military struggle against aggressive invaders. The range of meanings there almost exactly recapitulates the various meanings of the term crusade.
Scholars of Christianity and Islam have pointed out the ways in which the range of meaning of Jihad can be favorably compared with the range of “just war” in the Christian tradition.
5) The advertisement does more than violate the loftiest American ideals of pluralism. It also violates the reality of New York City as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.
NYC is the most ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse city in the United States. As an American, as a Muslim, as someone whose wife was born in New York, as someone who has had two children born in the state of New York, I say that this hateful advertising campaign is unbecoming of our diversity. This point was best made by the New York activist Linda Sarsour, whose Twitter feed reads:
In NYC We Speak 140 Languages and Hate Isn't One Of Them. #MySubwayAd #antihate
6) The Muslim community’s response in NYC has been exemplary as both Muslims and New Yorkers.
New York Muslim community has responded in their twin capacities as both Muslims and New Yorkers.
The responses have been now spiritually edifying, now sarcastic, now inspiring.
A small sample of them reads:
Hatred won't ever work as a solution, but it will always be a part of the problem. Don't fight hate with hate #MySubwayAd #AntiHate
I wanted to be treated like a human being - Rosa Parks #mysubwayad @MTAinsider
We all are the same. Keep love going. Sofia, age 4. #mysubwayad #antihate @mtainsider
The New York community’s response to the hateful ad is reminiscent of the equally clever response of Muslims to the absurdly hysterical Newsweek magazine cover “Muslim Rage”, where thousands of Muslims took to social media with amusing pictures of Muslims in humorous situations with the #Muslimrage tag.
In a real sense, the Muslim community seems to be embodying the lofty Qur’anic teaching about how to response to hateful nonsense:
The servants of the All-merciful God are those who walk in the earth modestly
and who, when the ignorant address them, only say, “Peace.”
7) The people behind this advertisement are a certified hate organization.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the most credible organization that tracks hate groups across the country, has already identified Pamella Geller’s organizations as a hate organization.
The SPLC has compiled some of Geller’s more laughably insane comments. Examining them is perhaps the best way of getting a sense of the paranoid, hateful and bizarre ideology of the people behind the advertisement in the New York Metro. Here are quotes by Pamela Geller on topics ranging from Islam to President Obama.
"Islam is not a race. This is an ideology. This is an extreme ideology, the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the earth." — Pam Geller On Fox Business' "Follow the Money," March 10, 2011
"Obama is a third worlder and a coward. He will do nothing but beat up on our friends to appease his Islamic overlords." — Pam Geller, AtlasShrugs.com, April 13, 2010
"Hussein [meaning President Obama] is a muhammadan. He's not insane … he wants jihad to win." — Pam Geller, AtlasShrugs.com, April 11, 2010
The other advertisements that Pam Geller’s organization had purchased make it clear that she is opposed not to some “Islamic extremism”, but to Islam itself. She has made this point amply clear: Her previous slogan was: “It’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamorealism.” She is also on record stating that while she thinks there may be “moderate Muslims”, there is no “moderate Islam” per se. In other words, she asserts that Islam in and by itself is a violent ideology.
There is not much need to elaborate further on this. One should simply be consistent in asking what our response should be to a person, any person, who declared the faith that illuminates the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings around the planet an inherently violent ideology, regardless of whether they are talking about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other faith.
In conclusion, let us put aside for a minute the conversation about Jihad, social media, Israel, colonialism, and “civilization.” What would we say to advertisement from the KKK on in our public spaces? What would we say to advertisements on public transportation from groups that openly espouse anti-Semitism, or messages targeting African-American, Gay and Lesbians, or Hispanics? Whatever our response to those hypothetical advertisements would be, why would our response to advertisement against Muslims be any different?
Putting aside questions about Islam and Muslims, it is perhaps worth asking what this says about as Americans. What does the singling out of Muslims say about us, about our civic commitment to forming “a more perfect union”? The preamble to the United States Constitution begins with: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice….” A campaign of hate that targets a beleaguered minority community takes us away from this lofty American ideal, and violates our reality as human beings who are bound up together in what Dr. King taught us was an inescapable network of mutuality.
Now is the time to remember that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It is about all of us, Muslim and Jew and Christian and Hindu and Buddhist and agnostic and atheist, about all of us who call this beautiful and messed up country home. It is about all of us, and up to all of us, to figure out what type of a society we wish to have, and how we want to deal with voices that direct such hate against one or more of us.
The Qur’an instructs us to say: Peace. And then leave the ignorant hateful people to their own folly.
As a New Yorker might say, you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.