The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), an organization devoted to countering what it calls “Islamic supremacism,” recently submitted an ad for New York City buses. The proposed poster states: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” While the unnamed enemy in the ad is any critic of Israel’s policies, the conflict evokes the simplistic Huntingtonian narrative pitting Islam against the West. The promotion of this narrative is emblematic of AFDI’s work, and contributes to a dangerous, fear-inspiring myth about the nature and intentions of the Muslim community at home and abroad.
In this case, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) decided to reject the AFDI’s advertisement because their use of the word “savages” was not compliant with the agency’s advertising standards. In September 2011, the AFDI filed suit in the federal district court in Manhattan. On July 20, the court ruled that the MTA’s refusal to run the ad violated the group’s freedom of speech. The court granted the agency 30 days to appeal or to amend its standards such that the AFDI’s ad would not be barred from display. The MTA chose to rewrite its rules. Pamela Geller, the Executive Director of the AFDI, now intends to place these posters in subways in New York, California, Washington, D.C., and on New York Metro-North.
When the court upheld Geller’s right to place hate-inspiring ads in New York City public buses, I celebrated America’s encompassing freedom of speech. But I was also disheartened on behalf of the millions of patriotic Americans who would be scrutinized and censured for their religion, race, or lifestyle. Thanks to the media, the ad’s unqualified use of the term “jihad,” a widely-misconstrued Arabic term meaning “struggle,” would more broadly be associated with Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians.
The lack of cultural awareness aside, the idea propagated by the AFDI ad, that Muslims are involved in a vast number of acts of violence targeting the West, is woefully flawed. Terrorism and acts of violence of any kind by any group are unjustified. An FBI study of terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2005 revealed that of all acts of terror on American soil, Islamic extremists were only responsible for 6 percent. Timothy McVeigh was not Muslim; neither are members of the Ku Klux Klan. These results were corroborated by National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, who said that violent extremists make up an “absolutely tiny…a minute percentage” of the American Muslim community.
Europe, too, has not experienced a significant number of successfully executed (or even foiled) attacks conducted by Muslims. According to Europol, the European Union law enforcement agency, Muslims have only been implicated in 0.4 percent of terrorist attacks in the past six years. In other words, 99.6 percent of attacks in Europe were carried out by other groups, such as separatist factions. In fact, out of the 174 terrorist attacks in 2011, only one was conducted by an Islamist. It’s also a relief to know that terrorist activities in Europe generally have been progressively declining over the past six years.
Furthermore, the results of a Gallup poll released in August 2011 demonstrate that American Muslims are more likely than any other religious group to hold the view that acts of violence against civilians are never justified whether they are carried out by the military (78 percent) or individual actors (89 percent). To put the results in context, the next largest group to denounce acts of violence carried out by the military against civilians are Atheists, at 56 percent. Additionally, the same poll revealed that American Jews are more likely than other religious groups to hold the view that American Muslims have no sympathy for al-Qaida, at 70 percent.
So the conflict between “savages” and “the civilized man,” a narrative habitually advanced by the AFDI, can validly be called into question. Setting aside the factual dubiousness of the narrative, though, what’s the big deal? Well, for one thing, American Muslims have increasingly been targeted in hate crimes, with an increase of 50 percent in the last year. They have experienced intense difficulty in establishing houses of worship, and have been the targets of ongoing attempts to impose meaningless yet discriminatory anti-Shariah legislation in the United States. The AFDI also propagates notions of a false dichotomy between Islam and the West, a division that is easily challenged by the millions of Western Muslims who comfortably synthesize and are true to both identities.
Sadia Ahsanuddin is a Research Associate for the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.