Anti-Muslim hate rides the bus: ‘Leaving Islam’ ads are prejudice disguised as assistance

Anti-Muslim hate rides the bus: ‘Leaving Islam’ ads are prejudice disguised as assistance

Is it free speech, subliminal stereotyping or hatemongering? It is all three.

Last month, about 30 buses in New York City’s fleet started running ads professing to assist individuals trying to leave Islam; they’ll continue to run through the middle of next week.

These are messages of hate masquerading as messages of help – and all New Yorkers who believe in peaceful coexistence should reject them.

Sponsored by an organization called Stop the Islamization of America, led by Pamela Geller, the ads read like something aimed at battered women trying to escape abusive relationships: “Fatwa on your head? Is your community or family threatening you? Leaving Islam?” Readers are then directed to a Web site aimed at providing support as they “escape” their religion.

The implication: Countless American Muslims are trapped in an oppressive and violent faith, dying to get out. And if they dare try, they could be injured or killed.

These are lies, and offensive ones at that. We should be clear: Few of the 5 million to 7 million Muslims in America want to escape their faith – and those who do are free to do so. There are extremists of all faith traditions, including those who identify as Muslim. But they are a small minority and do not represent Islam as a whole or American Muslims, for whom Islam is a beautiful and inspiring faith – not a prison.

So should the ads be banned from the buses? No. That’s not the solution. Instead, the message should be countered by informed people of goodwill, who are ready to demand that we treat one another with respect.

In fact, a ban probably wouldn’t hold up to legal scrutiny. Similar ads ran earlier this year in Miami-Dade, Florida. When Miami-Dade Transit yanked the ads from 10 buses because they could be offensive, the sponsoring organization threatened to sue. The county attorney’s office intervened and found that, even though the ads might be offensive, they were within permitted guidelines. They were reinstated.

There is precedent across the country for using public transit ads as the platform for political or religious messaging that is sometimes offensive and targets different groups (including Christians and Jews). Many U.S. cities have recently had pro-atheist advertisements appear on buses – one of which states, “You can be good without God.”

We should recognize the right of diverse voices to free speech – and the corollary responsibility to name the message when it stirs ill-informed hatred. Unless we understand the ads and reject their message, their ultimate impact will be to reinforce prejudice.

Islamophobia and anti-Islam hatred are on the rise in the U.S., especially after the events of 9/11. Even before that fateful day, Muslims were often portrayed in the media as democracy- and America-hating terrorists – a portrayal that, unfortunately, has increasingly seeped into our consciousness. In 2002, 41% of respondents in a national poll admitted to harboring anti-Muslim sentiments (even though only 7% said they understood Islam very well). In 2009, the percentage of those admitting anti-Islam attitudes reached 46%.

The bus ads fuel the fire. Although Geller says that practicing Muslims should simply ignore the ads, and that they are aimed at those who want to leave the religion, the reality is that people frequently switch religions in the U.S., Islam included. Approximately half of all Americans change religious affiliations at some point in their lives.

And violence is not a U.S. response to those who leave a tradition, whether it is Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism or any other faith.

Thus, the ad is not really directed at a marginalized group of individuals yearning to leave Islam across the U.S. Rather, these ads subliminally reinforce the fearful stereotype that Islam is a religion of violent coercion. That it is cultlike in its hold over adherents. That it is a dangerous belief system from which people must escape.

A comparison across a wide range of traditions, Islam included, results in one conclusion: Most of our fundamental values are common across religious beliefs – values like compassion, respect for the “other,” charity, peace, forgiveness and, above all, the golden rule. In every case, Islamic texts strongly support those values.

Geller’s group has the right to buy ads that are within the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s regulations. And those of us who find the message offensive have the obligation to condemn them for what they are – statements designed to stoke fear and hatred, without cause, without facts, without justice. To do anything less is to let hate win.