Inform or Incite?

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Many who recognize the evil that permeates radical Islam likely felt a reflexive satisfaction at the recent ruling of U.S. District Judge John Koeltl that New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority cannot reject an anti-Islamist advertisement.

The ad, created by the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” (AFDI), presents a keffiyeh-wrapped head of a man, only his eyes showing, next to the words: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” a quote attributed to Hamas television.  Below that is the legend: “That’s his Jihad. What’s yours?”

That final phrase is a pointed parody of a Muslim advocacy group’s ad campaign several years ago to try to detach the word “jihad” from its “holy war” connotation.

Telling quote, clever ad.  And, according to Judge Koeltl, within AFDI’s rights to run.

The MTA had notified AFDI that it would not accept the ad (one of four that the group purchased space for on the sides of New York buses) because it could incite violence.  A simpleminded Muslim, the MTA claimed, might misunderstand the ad’s true message and be inspired by its quote to kill Jews.  Rejecting that argument, Judge Koeltl noted that the ad had had no such effect when it ran in San Francisco and Chicago in 2013; and he ruled that “Under the First Amendment, the fear of such spontaneous attacks… cannot override individuals’ rights to freedom of expression.”  (The MTA has a month to appeal his decision and has said that it will reject all political ads.)

Judge Koeltl, apparently referencing a disclaimer to accompany the ad, also said he believes the MTA underestimates “the power of counter-advertisements to explain that the MTA does not endorse the ad…”

The person behind AFDI is activist Pamela Geller.  She is, laudably, committed to exposing Islamist extremism.  But she has also given ample cause to doubt her judgment. She has written, for example, that “Hussein” – her way of referring to President Obama – “is a muhammadan [sic]. He’s not insane … he wants jihad to win.”

And she responded to criticism leveled at her by several prominent Jewish organizations by labeling them “Dhimmi Jewcidals” and contending that they are worse than “the Judenrat [which] didn’t protect and defend the Nazis’ war on the Jews [but only] went along… They didn’t advance and promote it.”

She also is planning a contest for the best cartoon of the founder of Islam. The “Draw the Prophet” event is scheduled for May 3, in the same Garland, Texas location where a Muslim group held a solidarity conference in January.  If she imagines that non-radicalized Muslims will not be insulted by her contest, she has a formidable imagination.

And the AFDI ads, although their points are valid ones, present several problems.  First, they are read by many as implicating not only those who use their religion to spew hatred and wreak mayhem but all Muslims. Ms. Geller denies that accusation, but it’s not an unarguable one.

Secondly, while the ads aren’t likely to be misunderstood as encouraging violence against Jews, they are entirely likely to foster ill will among Arabs and Muslims – against Ms. Geller and, perforce, all defenders of Israel in general, who will be seen, fairly or not, as her enablers.

Thirdly, the same First Amendment right that permits the AFDI ads permits potential ads portraying Israel as a murderous, fascist state, or Jews as nefarious would-be world-domineering devils.  Those contentions may be lies but such false speech is arguably free speech too.  Does Ms. Geller really want to risk igniting an ad war?

To be sure, there is a need to call attention to the evils of Islamism and to try to undermine anti-Israel sentiment, but attempting to do so with inflammatory ads on the sides of buses may not be the most effective way to advance those goals. Or the right way.

Informing is one thing; incitement, another.

A spokesman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio didn’t mince words.  “These anti-Islamic ads,” she said, “are outrageous, inflammatory and wrong… 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.”

That loftier and nobler view of humanity may or may not be justified.  But that’s not the issue.  The issue is  whether ads like AFDI’s help or hinder the goal of winning hearts and minds.

The answer seems obvious.

© 2015 Hamodia