Have we taken free speech too far?

September 26, 2012

As of this week, anti-Islamic ads reading, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad” are legally being displayed in subways across New York City.

The ads are funded  by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization co-founded by Pamela Geller who also co-founded the Stop Islamization of America.

Before discussing the implications of the ad, it is essential to clarify that these ads are anti-Islamic and not just pro-Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict is fundamentally a political conflict: It is a conflict over lands that both parties consider rightfully their own. This ad is playing on the fact that the states that support Palestine militarily are a majority-Muslim; using the terms Jihad and Islam interchangeably. The ad is portraying the conflict as essentially religious rather than political, but what is most infuriating is that it is likening an entire faith to savagery.

The ad goes much further than only discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict. It sends an insulting message about Muslims worldwide. If we assume the ad is using Jihad and Islam interchangeably, it implies:

1. The battle for Israel is a war against all Muslims.
2. All Muslims are savages.
3. All Muslims are anti-Israel.
4. The term Jihad can loosely be defined as the Palestinian perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The FDI incorrectly defines Jihad as a general Holy War without understanding the many facets of the true meaning of Jihad and the restrictions Islam places on Muslims concerning violence. They clearly lack accurate information about Islam and are hoping to prevent others from obtaining it with these ads.

Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority appealed the ads, a District Court Judge legalized the advertisements on the basis of the First Amendment. The United States is one of the only democracies in the world that does not prohibit hate speech that incites animosity toward certain groups of people even though acts like this are clearly insulting the spirit of the First Amendment. The U.S. legal system’s refusal to accept this minimizes equality among Americans and reduces America’s sense of democracy.

If any group is targeted by hate speech, its dignity and its right to self-respect is not being protected by national law. These ads are framing Muslims and Americans as two groups with irreconcilable differences, categorizing Muslim Americans as non-Americans. The ads minimize the true citizenship that Muslims hold in America and subject Muslims to hostility, violence and discrimination. This is a clear lack of social security.

Several groups have been marginalized by regrettable actions in America’s history, including the open persecution of Jews, the Japanese, African-Americans and homosexuals. In all four cases, the disregarded group was only afforded second-class citizenship. These ads will prove that the U.S. legal system has not left that America in the past. The ads will open the door to more outright persecution of Muslims, providing an extension of colonization, of Orientalism and of imperialism. They will lead to the west and the east having a true “Clash of Civilizations”  and delaying the process of learning about each other.

The decision that the United States must now make is whether hate speech like this should be legal. Do values of free speech override the values of equality and of preventing profound personal offense to any singular group? Was the First Amendment passed with the intention of grouping very diverse people into one entity and then vilifying them? Living in America, we are constantly valorizing free speech, and in my opinion, this makes it easier to trample over other values. We must not forget that the United States is first a democracy that promises to protect all of its citizens and treat them with equality. An ad like this inherently creates a hierarchy within society, placing the civilized man or American at the top and the savage or the Muslim underneath. If the U.S. government is willing to overlook the dignity of Muslims to uphold what the FDI chooses to call free speech, it has very clearly failed to be a true democracy and protect its citizens.

Faria Mardhani is a contributing columnist. Email her at opinion@nyunews.com.

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