“In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad," states one of the ten advertisements that recently appeared in the New York subway system on Monday September 24, the last two clauses of the ad nestled between two stars of David.
Though consisting of only eighteen words, the advertisement has been the source of much dialogue revolving around freedom of speech in the United States, much like another recent anti-Muslim piece: the controversial film that sparked violent protests against United States embassies throughout the Islamic world this month, “The Innocence of Muslims”. No one can condone the violent actions undertaken by the protesters, as no violent action is legitimate action, however, the ad’s endorsers are not advocating peace either.
The ad was paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an umbrella organization of Stop Islamization of America, the Anti-Islamic group run by blogger, Pamela Gellar. Having first been rejected by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the advertisements were finally ruled permissible by a district judge, with the rationale that they were protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
It is undeniable that free speech is a universal right in the United States of America: any political party, individual, or religious group in the United States is protected under the First Amendment. However, any discourse that endorses or reinforces hate should be condemned, and Southern Poverty Law Center has officially classified Stop Islamization of America as a hate group.
Proponents of the ad reject the notion of hate speech when the subject is brought up. They claim that they are in the right to assert that anyone who endorses Jihad—a holy war—should be considered a savage. This denomination, though a bit gauche, is not entirely unfitting, but the main issue with the use of the word ‘savage’ is not in the fact that they are associating it with Jihad, rather that this advertisement is creating dichotomies that permit associations to Arabs in general. It is pinning the ‘civilized man’ against the ‘savage’ and ‘Israel’ against ‘Jihad’, when today, Israel is almost always associated with the Arab. In doing so, the average New Yorker, in a rush, will quickly glimpse at these words and it will become inculcated in their daily routine.
The word ‘savage’ designates someone with a sub, or semi-human status and is animal-like: threatening, dangerous and unpredictable. This automatically creates an “us versus them” image of otherness within a Western world already heavily concerned with the Middle East and its actions. Not only does this type of propaganda create generalizations about Muslims, it fortifies a culture of fear already prevalent in the United States, reinforced and in some ways created by the mainstream media. Furthermore, the associations made in the advertisement are closely related to tactics already employed by media outlets. An extreme example of this is Newsweek’s recently printed cover featuring angry Muslim film protesters practically foaming at the mouth, with the headline “Muslim Rage.”
Acceptance of this type of cultural portrayal should not be tolerated, as it allows manipulated depictions to become normalized and go unchallenged. Such is the issue with mainstream media’s hesitation to call the Oak Creek Wisconsin Sikh temple shooter a domestic ‘terrorist’ once they found out he was an American white supremacist—whereas if he were Muslim, they would probably not think twice. Moreover, what Western media fails to show is the statistical evidence of the actual violence that takes place domestically: of all cases of domestic terrorism, about a quarter arise from white supremacists, anti-government extremists, or terrorists against another religion; all of the most worrisome cases—those involving chemical, biological, or radiological materials—arise from right-wing extremists, none from Islamists.
When these types of biases occur in the media, it permits and perpetuates fear of the ‘other’, promotes hatred, and ultimately generates extremists in our society, whether they be Muslims, white supremacists or just oppressively intolerant. If there is any reason why the American government lets these actions pass as legitimate under the First Amendment it is because they reinforce its pro-Israeli stance in this ongoing Arab-Israeli war, which in some ways justifies its views and actions.
Gellar spent $6,000 on this one advertisement, demonstrating that those who have the means and the political power today govern our mainstream media and culture. Moreover, to complement the first, Gellar and her group put up another advertisement in New York City stating: “It’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamorealism.” If there is a significant way to ostracize the Israeli who wants peace, it is through these posters, if there is a significant way to create antagonism where there was none before, it is through these posters, if there is a way to reduce the chances of a peaceful resolution to an ongoing conflict, it is through these posters. Islamophobia is a reality, and there needs to be dialogue about who the real ‘savages’ are.