By Naseem Mahdi, National Vice President, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA
In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Ever Merciful
This week, anti-Islamic ads appear on 100 New York City buses and two subway entrances. With a court order overturning an initial ban of the ads on free speech grounds, the ads not only smear the rich tradition of free speech but, as Mayor de Blasio noted, seek to divide.
Some ads have phrases such as “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah” along with a picture of Hitler sitting with Haj Amin al-Husseini, whom the ads describe as “leader of the Muslim world.” The first phrase is as vapid as Hitler’s own remarks, “We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity … our movement is Christian.” And regarding Husseini, the picture itself was taken after Husseini was deposed and his career was coming to its inevitable demise. Moreover, Husseini at his peak, was only the Mufti of Jerusalem.
Exploiting free speech for such nefarious ends has devastating consequences. First, if pockets of the Muslim world are averse to free speech, how will this ad campaign help address this issue? Ironically, observing restraint would help marginalize those Muslims who allegedly threaten free speech rights. And the harm is felt here in America, too. A 2013 Carnegie Mellon University study revealed that Muslim-Americans face significant job discrimination. A sizable, and rather confused minority, still believe President Obama is a Muslim – and that this is a bad thing. And while more than half of the states have partially or wholly recognized same-sex marriage, 7 states have introduced bans on “foreign” (i.e. “Sharia”) law and 25 have proposed similar measures. The ads backers should also remember the link between irresponsible speech and hate crimes. For example, last September a mob shouted “Get Osama” and “terrorist” while brutally attacking Columbia professor Dr. Prabhjot Singh. Singh is a practicing Sikh.
The ads also ignore the progress we have made together thus far. With phrases like “Jihad is Jihad” in bright red, the ads message is clear – Muslims want your blood. And, in a sense, the ads are correct. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost on 9/11. But what if, as a result, we could save 30,000 every year? It turns out, we can – in fact, we are. In the last three years, the “Muslims for Life”® national blood drive campaign has collected enough blood to potentially save 100,000 lives. As Chairman of the Annual Nationwide “Muslims for Life”® Campaign, I am happy to report that this year we partnered with even more groups – secular and religious – to bear witness to the fact: We can shed blood to save lives. As Canton (Boston) Chief of Police Kenneth Berkowitz exclaimed after last year’s event, “It seems like a dream.”
The hawkish amongst us need not worry that this approach lets us forget that threats like ISIS exist. In fact, such a meaning makes us even more adept at addressing it. We killed Osama bin Laden three years ago, but bin Laden’s allure is alive. To many, he represents evil incarnate. But many Muslims remember an Arab who used his wealth to defend Afghani Muslims against the USSR, to build refugee camps and provide foodstuff, and to advocate for poor Arabs’ labor rights. This allure enabled him to recruit people from more than 50 countries. Embracing 9/11 as an event that is bringing us together is essential to delegitimizing this allure. As one participant of the Muslims for Life blood drive put it, “For me it was the fact that I’m Jewish, and this is a Muslim drive, [and] I’m going.”
During this ad campaign, we are ready to discuss any concerns people may have about Islam. Our request is only that discord and divisiveness be cast aside and, as the Qur’an says, we “vie with one another in goodness.” Surely, that is a call anyone can embrace.