On Tuesday, the prominent Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy informed her almost 160 000 Twitter followers in no uncertain terms that she was incensed by an advertisement that had been placed in some New York City subways stations. Quoting a Reuters report about the ad, Eltahawy referred to it as “‘Savage’ jihad ad,” and, by adding the hashtag #ProudSavage, presumably declared her solidarity with maligned jihadists who see themselves in a war against Israel and (western) civilization.
Indeed, as the day wore on, Eltahawy playfully pondered on Twitter how best to protest the ad, deciding eventually that defacing it with pink spray paint would be “sexier” than the alternatives. A few hours later, Eltahawy was going through with her plan to cover one of the ads with pink paint, but was confronted by a woman resolved to stop her. The ensuing brawl was captured by a New York Post camera crew, and Eltahawy was eventually arrested and held overnight to face a criminal mischief charge in court.
This story is a perfect, if utterly depressing, illustration of the mindless sloganeering that all too often passes for political action and debate nowadays.
First, let us consider what the ad that Reuters described as “inflammatory” really said. As the Reuters report noted, the ad equates “Islamic jihad with savagery;” saying specifically:
“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.
Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
To me, the most straightforward reading of the message here is: Jihad, understood as war, and in this case specifically as war against Israel, is savage. This is only “inflammatory” if you worry that many Muslims would be insulted to see violent jihadi acts of war denounced as savage.
But apparently, this is not how Eltahawy and her many ardent supporters read the ad. The most revealing illustration for their reading was provided by the well-known cartoonist Carlos Latuff, who has rightly been criticized for his “staggering amount of work dedicated to advancing explicitly anti-Semitic political imagery.”
Latuff was quick to support the #FreeMona campaign developing on Twitter with a drawing that, according to Latuff’s own caption, meant to illustrate that “equating Muslims with savages is freedom of speech – protesting against it is not…”
But while Latuff claimed that the ad was “equating Muslims with savages”, his rendering of the ad tellingly left out the last line “Defeat Jihad.”
It wasn’t the text of the ad that equated Muslims with savages, but Latuff – as well as Eltahawy and her admirers – apparently equated Jihad, understood as war, and specifically as war against Israel, with Islam and therefore with Muslims.
That would probably please jihadists everywhere.
Let’s now consider what the solidarity expressed in the hashtag #ProudSavage really means in the context of contemporary jihadist declarations and actions.
First, I would hope that we can all agree that self-described jihadists who consider videos of beheadings “very,very important” tools for recruiting volunteers deserve to be denounced as savage.
Unfortunately, jihadi rhetoric can hardly be considered as all that more civilized.
Among the most widely known examples is probably the Hamas Charter, especially the declaration:
"The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
“[W]e believe that the battle between us and the Jews is coming … Such a battle is not driven by nationalistic causes or patriotic belonging; it is rather driven by religious incentives. This battle is not going to happen between Arabs and Zionists, or between Jews and Palestinians, or between Jews or anybody else. It is between Muslims and Jews as is clearly stated in the hadith. This battle will occur between the collective body of Muslims and the collective body of Jews i.e. all Muslims and all Jews.”
Qaradawi has made many similar statements encouraging hatred and violence between Muslims and Jews; indeed, a few years ago, he even used his popular Al Jazeera show that reached an audience of tens of millions of Muslims to praise the Holocaust as a divinely ordained punishment for the Jews, expressing the hope that “Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the believers.”
How “racist” or “hateful” is it to denounce these racist and hateful views as savage?
Indeed, if there is such a thing as universal values and universal human rights and if we all share a common humanity, then it cannot be that denouncing calls by mainstream Muslim organizations and personalities for a bloody Muslim Jihad against Jews is somehow worse than this incitement to Jew-hatred and violence.
Well-meaning people like Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, are therefore arguably wrong to criticize this specific ad by repeating the well-worn piety that “for the vast majority of Muslims, ‘jihad’ refers to a spiritual quest, not the more politicized idea of holy war.”
That may be true, but the fact of the matter is that, as I have documented above, there is today also a mainstream Muslim understanding of jihad as bloody and, as far as Jews are concerned, ultimately genocidal war. There are also numerous violent jihadi groups, and the “vast majority of Muslims” who understand jihad as a spiritual quest have arguably little reason to feel offended when violent terrorists are denounced as savage.
Indeed, in the wake of 9/11, there were countless appeals by western leaders and commentators admonishing people not to conflate terrorists who kill in the name of Islam with the religion followed by more than 1.5 billion Muslims. But when we have an ad that denounces jihad as savage, the “politically correct” consensus now seems to be that this is an “anti-Muslim” ad.
Another reason why this ad is interpreted as “anti-Muslim” is of course the fact that it was sponsored by a group that has often rightly been criticized and condemned for campaigns that betray anti-Muslim bigotry. Yet, such groups arguably only stand to gain adherents when it becomes anti-Muslim bigotry to denounce violent jihad as savage.
As deplorable and objectionable as it is that some believe that by denigrating Islam and Muslims in general, they are engaging in pro-Israel activism, it is not all that much better to pretend that widespread hatred of Jews, Israel and even the West doesn’t exist in the Muslim world.
Particularly a prominent writer like Mona Eltahawy surely had the option to turn to numerous widely read media outlets to explain what she finds so objectionable in this specific ad – and perhaps also what she thinks of the mainstream Muslim views of jihad I cited above. Engaging in an act of futile vandalism accompanied by a few rather vulgar tweets and claiming that this is an exercise of free speech and anti-racist political action is indeed a poor reflection on a widely admired writer of our time.
And, in yet another tweet posted just five minutes ago and already retweeted by almost 100 people, Eltahawy declares: “I spray painted that racist piece of shit poster out of principle, protected speech & non-violent disobedience. Proud & absolutely no regrets!”
Unthinking demagoguery attracts a lot of fans, it seems. And what do you know: there is also a new slogan, because, naturally, when a much-despised fringe group sponsors an ad describing the jihad that targets Israel as savage, the most anti-racist thing to do is to declare that we are all proud savages now…