Interfaith community advocates education and understanding in response to anti-Islam ads
Was anyone expecting beheadings and torched cathedrals?
Philadelphia’s interfaith communities — yes, Muslims included — are planning an open-arms response in the wake of U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg’s ruling that an out-of-town private group can run their anti-Islamic advertisements on SEPTA buses.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative (ADFI) first approached SEPTA last year, hoping to place its inflammatory ad (which links Muslims to Hitler and calls for an end to all US aid to all Islamic countries) on the transit authority’s trains, trolleys, buses, shelters and kiosks. SEPTA refused the ad, and AFDI sued.
The same suit has been filed against over half a dozen transit agencies across the country, and the private group has won.
Wednesday, Judge Goldberg’s ruling declared that ADFI and its ad are protected under the first amendment, which covers both incendiary and untrue statements as long as they are not explicitly hateful. Thus the ad and the ruling raise a commonplace democratic question: Is there a line between free speech and hate speech?
Since September 2014, the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia has gathered a coalition of various religious groups in Philadelphia to strategize a proper response. The 32 members of the interfaith council — including archbishops, imams, and rabbis — took a stance that was both welcoming and critical.
“We affirm the constitutional protection of free speech,” the council said in its October statement. “That does not diminish our condemnation of irresponsible speech. The language used in these proposed advertisements is distorted, prejudicial, and inflames hatred.”
Marwan Kriedie is the executive director of the Arab American Development Corporation, the spokesperson for Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, and also a member of the ACLU. He’s a devout advocate of free speech, and even if he condemns the ADFI’s message, he sees it bringing Philly’s religious and cultural communities closer together.
“The good thing is that you’re seeing a really unique and unprecedented group of people from all different religious traditions getting together to say that this is not what Philadelphia stands for,” Kreidie said.
Kreidie is also active in the Interfaith Center. The group met following the ruling Wednesday to discuss their concerns now that the ad placement seems imminent.
“The big fear we have is that kids take SEPTA to go to school and they’ll see those things,” Kreidie said. “Even though I think the ad is badly done, we don’t want people to see it and think that its claims are real.”
Officially, they’re still waiting to see if SEPTA will appeal the federal judge’s ruling, said Abby Stamelman Hocky, the executive director of the Interfaith Center. But at the same time, Hocky and fellow interfaith community members are weighing their options.
They’ve consulted other cities that have already dealt with the AFDI. In response to the anti-Islam ads in their own public transit system, people in New York City raised money to place a counter ad.
Hocky has a more understated idea on how to respond effectively.
“We’re going to use this as an opportunity to educate,” she said.
Instead of running a counter ad, Hocky says they might launch a visual campaign that will capture the idea of “Dare to Understand,” the Interfaith Center’s slogan.
“Through images, we want people to reflect on what it means to be in the city of brotherly love, images of the ways people come together across religious, racial, or ethnic difference,” she said.
They may also work with the school district to start an essay contest about interfaith and multicultural issues.