The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) has decided that riling up anti-Muslim sentiment through bus and subway ads is its only hope for attaining relevancy. The ads began appearing last fall in major cities across the country, featuring a slogan calling Muslims “savage.” In San Francisco, the latest round is set to appear on city buses in April, showing anti-gay quotes by radically conservative Muslims in an apparent effort to convince gays and our allies to hate Muslims in general. We must take action against the presence of these patently offensive ads on our buses.
The National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area chapter (NLG-SF) called on city leaders to oppose the ads: “The City of San Francisco must take responsibility for the role it plays in furthering the agenda of this campaign, particularly in light of the alarming rise of hate crimes against Muslims and people perceived to be Muslim.”
The NLG-SF’s opposition to AFDI complements the chapter’s efforts with the Coalition for a Safe San Francisco, which has responded to an aggressive national security presence in the Bay Area by pushing for transparency and an end to cooperation between local law enforcement and federal “anti-terrorism” agencies. Combatting this kind of hate speech is also in keeping with the NLG’s national efforts to support Palestinian rights activists and counter illegal surveillance and predatory prosecution of Muslim Americans.
The AFDI says its intention is to educate Americans about the dangers from extremists such as Osama Bin Laden who identify as Muslim. To suggest that Americans would sympathize with Bin Laden’s views were it not for these ads is to stretch the outer limits of credulity. No, AFDI’s objective can only be to vilify an entire religion. Indeed, the latest AFDI ads are a response to the fairly innocuous My Jihad initiative, which sought to highlight the fluid definition of the word “jihad” by showcasing average Muslims and their self-improvement goals.
The reappearance of AFDI ads reveals the California legislature’s priorities. The hateful ads provides a marked contrast with the California campus activism highlighting the realities of Palestinian life that some Zionist organizations and sympathetic lawmakers have attempted to label as hate speech.
No one would debate that people can and do exploit religion as justification for hate and violence—whether it is against gays or others—but this is true of all religions. Yet, we do not see the AFDI sponsoring ads quoting the Westboro Baptist Church and warning of the dangers of Christianity or Christian extremists. That is because the AFDI prefers to target a religious minority that has been consistently marginalized throughout recent history, both by individual assailants and by the U.S. government. Beyond inciting violence against Muslims in the U.S., these ads seek to justify and support the American government’s program of drone killing, borderless war, imperial occupation, indefinite detention, and support of Israeli apartheid. The mosque fires and assaults in our communities, as horrible as they are, constitute only a small part of this much larger geopolitical project. That AFDI hides its divisive goals behind a cloak of tolerance is what makes these ads so pernicious.
Of course, I understand the risks involved in removing the ads (though it is hard for me to believe that the SFMTA would allow ads from other hate groups, such as the aforementioned Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan, without a fight). The San Francisco Muni system is already underfunded and the last thing it needs is a major lawsuit. I’m also sympathetic to arguments by civil libertarians, including many of my fellow NLG members, about the dangers of empowering the state to censor hate speech when those powers could easily be abused. That said, the best response is widespread civil disobedience.
The hate ads have already received a great deal of attention from creative activists willing to risk arrest and it’s safe to say that, given the tradition of activism in San Francisco, we can expect to see that attention continue. As a historic center of the gay rights movement, San Francisco has the opportunity to demonstrate that its gay rights agenda does not end at the annual pride parade. Gay, straight, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, atheist—we are a community for all, but if there is one thing we won’t tolerate, it’s hate.
Carlos Villarreal is the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area chapter. He is gay and agnostic. An earlier version of this article ran on his personal blog, www.shoplifters.us.