Last year, hateful advertisements generalizing Muslims as “savages” began to run on buses and in train stations of several major American cities. The ads have prompted myriad responses to counter their hateful message. The most recent response is a new internet campaign, Talk Back to Hate, which launched last month to raise funds via the crowdfunding website, IndieGogo. Talk Back to Hate aims to use the funds raised to purchase advertisements with a message voted upon by the campaign’s contributors as a response to growing anti-Muslim sentiment.
It all began last September when Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) purchased advertising space in ten New York City subway stations. The AFDI ad read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The ads also appeared in other cities including San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Chicago. Four months later, AFDI increased their efforts to spread hate in New York and purchased more ad space next to 228 clocks in 39 stations. The new run of ads feature an image of the September 11 terrorist attacks and a quote from the Quran.
While relatively tame compared to the rhetoric posted daily on Geller’s blog, Atlas Shrugs, the publicly-displayed words of hate garner many more views than her blog ever will. Just like the “Freedom Rally” in New York City she and AFDI have organized in past years to counter “Islamization,” the subway ads provide a public platform for Geller’s bigotry.
Akiva Freidlin, founder of the Talk Back to Hate campaign, recalls seeing those ads in his hometown of New York City and finding them offensive. By the time the second round of ads began to appear on subway clocks, Freidlin started to work on a response. “I just thought to myself, ‘Hey, anyone can buy an ad.’ Most people in this city probably find this message repulsive. So why don’t we just run our own response?” Freidlin started the fundraising campaign and began to orchestrate a response where the message would be both funded and designed by campaign contributors.
Freidlin was not alone in wanting to respond. In fact, artists, activists, and religious groups have responded across the country in cities where the ads were displayed.
In San Francisco, artists wheat-pasted a graphic stamping the ads in red ink, labeling them as “Hate Speech.” Some New Yorkers responded in a similar fashion, with a bold-lettered graphic simply labeling the ads “RACIST”. A teacher in Washington D.C. covered an ad with yellow Post-it notes featuring messages such as “Choose Tolerance” and “If you see something hateful, say something peaceful.” When the new ads featuring the 9/11 terrorist attacks debuted, activists amended them with stickers classifying them as “War Propaganda” and cautioning the public that they were “the target.”
Religious organizations including Rabbis for Human Rights North America, United Methodist Women, and Sojourners have all commissioned advertisements to counter AFDI’s campaign with words of love and peace. Freidlin wanted Talk Back to Hate’s response to convey similar themes, but also reflect the opinions of the larger, general public. “This anti-Muslim propaganda violates civic and national mores that go beyond the sphere of religion and it’s incumbent on ‘regular people’ to respond without coming from any one religious tradition,” Freidlin says.
So far, the response to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. The campaign reached its initial fundraising goal of $7,500 well before its February 17 deadline. The campaign now hopes to raise enough money to fund a second run of ads with another message, also to be voted on and approved by contributors.
Talk Back to Hate did encounter some dissent on the campaign’s fundraising page as well as on Facebook and Twitter, but that does not surprise the campaign’s organizers. “It mirrors the larger public debate,” according to Freidlin, “those who are passionate about fomenting hatred devote a great deal of time to doing so, while the rest of us try to live harmonious and productive lives.” Pamela Geller is one such devotee to fomenting hatred and is showing no signs of stopping after her subway clock advertisements.
Prompted by the #MyJihad ad campaign, Geller and AFDI have recently been given approval to run counter ads (which were already in response to AFDI’s “Defeat Jihad” ads) in Chicago and Washington D.C. Citing previous cases where AFDI sued transit authorities in order to have its ads displayed, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) begrudgingly accepted the ads on February 4. In a letter to David Yerushalmi, AFDI’s lawyer, a CTA representative spoke to the true nature of the ads, but also revealed their hands were tied when faced with the threat of legal action:
“In our view, the newest bus ads AFDI submitted to CTA are morally reprehensible – advocating racism, hatred and intolerance of cultural diversity. The City of Chicago was built upon and depends upon that very diversity. Nevertheless, the CTA is also aware that AFDI filed lawsuits against transit agencies in New York and Washington when they refused or delayed acceptance of similar ads and that AFDI prevailed under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
For Talk Back to Hate, making a statement of unity and love as a community is how they choose to condemn anti-Muslim rhetoric. While the fundraising campaign has not ended, the first set of ads have been produced and are up at various stations throughout New York.
As a new slew of AFDI ads begin to run in cities across America, it will be interesting to see what influence past and current campaigns such as Talk Back to Hate have on efforts to counter the hateful message. Professional bigots like Pamela Geller will not stop this practice. Suing transit agencies on the basis of defending free speech is lucrative. However, efforts to combat and renounce this practice need to continue.
Islamophobic “freedom fighters” like Pamela Geller should not have the last word in this. Our diversity is our strength; and that diversity is most prominent in our American cities. When that diversity is attacked, we must make a concerted effort to defend it. As Freidlin says, “it’s important to stand up in defense of any group consistently targeted like this, because they don’t have the luxury of just ignoring it.”
For more information and to contribute to the Talk Back to Hate campaign, visit www.talkbacktohate.org