A lesson or two can be learned about freedom of speech – and its limits – from a
recent anti-jihad ad campaign in America and the reactions it has
Last year, an organization called the American Freedom Defense
Initiative – known for heading a campaign against an Islamic center near the
World Trade Center site – requested to post ads in New York City subway
“In any war between the civilized man and the savage,” read the
ad, “support the civilized man; support Israel, defeat jihad.”
Metropolitan Transportation Authority initially rejected the ad, citing its
“demeaning” language. In response, AFDI head Pamela Geller sued, arguing that
her organization’s right to freedom of speech was being trampled by the MTA.
July, a federal court ruled in Geller’s favor, citing MTA’s violation of the
First Amendment of the US Constitution. The ads began appearing in 10 New York
City subway stations on September 24. In the coming weeks, the ads will be
expanded to New York City buses.
Geller won another suit last Friday,
this time in Washington, DC. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had
originally “deferred” placing the AFDI’s ads “out of a concern for public
safety, given current world events.”
The Washington authority was
referring to the violent and sometimes deadly riots that have swept across much
of the Muslim world – including European cities with large Muslim populations –
in protest against an amateurish American-made video mocking the prophet
But a US federal judge ruled Friday that the authority must
place the ads by Monday.
Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the
AFDI ad’s message, the court rulings mark a major victory for Western values –
in this case the right to freedom of expression – in the face of a major
onslaught by a particularly radical, intolerant and uncompromising expression of
Since the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989 calling to
murder author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, there have been
numerous attempts by Muslim extremists to use violence to intimidate the West,
resulting in the limiting of freedom of speech.
Too often the news media,
writers, academics and politicians adopt a tactic of selective self-censorship.
While Christians, Jews and members of other religions can be openly criticized
and lampooned, Muslims must be treated with special sensitivity.
biggest danger to freedom of speech today is the dynamic in which free
individuals living in Western countries are cowed into silence for fear that
potentially controversial statements – regardless of their veracity – are likely
to whip large crowds of Muslim extremists into a violent fervor.
shouldn’t Muslims, like any other religious group, be expected to show tolerance
– and a sense of humor – when their religion is criticized or lampooned? At the
very least they should refrain from resorting to violence.
For those who
believe the AFDI’s anti-jihad ad was unfair to Muslims, the proper response in
an open society is not to attempt to stifle freedom of speech by preventing the
ads from being placed. Rather, an alternative, competing view should be
articulated that vies for support in the free market of ideas.
precisely what Rabbis for Human Rights North America did. An ad that reads: “In
the choice between love and hate, CHOOSE LOVE. Help stop bigotry against our
Muslim neighbors,” will be running alongside AFDI’s ads.
Egyptian-American writer and activist Mona Eltahawy’s approach was all wrong. In
a highly publicized stunt, Eltahawy spray-painted over one of AFDI’s anti-jihad
ads on a New York subway station. Not only did she damage MTA property, she also
used aggressive methods to cover up AFDI’s message – though she probably ended
up increasing the ad’s media exposure.
Eltahaway, who as an American
enjoys rights that women living in Arab countries can only dream of, came out on
the side of those who would like to see freedom of expression
AFDI’s anti-jihad ad might be distasteful to some. But it is
precisely when a message is controversial that true freedom of expression is