If not careful, you may be met eye to eye with the world’s most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden, while waiting for one of San Francisco’s Muni buses. The Muslim monster was not resurrected, but his face, along with an ominous quote of violence, is part of a citywide ad campaign taking aim at the term “jihad.”
Led by bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the provocative placards suggest collective guilt on the part of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims for acts of terrorism, and the ads are the latest manifestation of the duo’s desire to ignite a culture war along faith lines.
In recent months, Geller and Spencer have hung similarly unnecessary signage in metro stations across the country. In New York City, ferocious verses from the Quran were plopped alongside gory images of the twin towers crumbling into a sea of ash. The pair equated Muslims with “savages” and enemies of Israel in an ad campaign that hit San Francisco buses and Washington, D.C., transit stops last fall. This newest batch of in-your-face activism taunts a positive campaign to reclaim the term “jihad” from extremists on both sides whose narrow interpretations of the concept fuel misunderstanding and hatred.
Geller and Spencer claim to be “freedom fighters” and see themselves as bulwarks on the front line of a battle between liberty and tyranny. (Ironically, bin Laden viewed himself in precisely the same way.) But how their imbalanced messages, flying by on the sides of city transportation, promote a freer, more equitable world is not exactly clear.
Also unclear is why, in their supposed quest to save humanity, they are linked to some of the very people who seem to want to destroy it: They have teamed up with a rowdy U.K. street movement, the English Defence League, whose members have threatened Muslims with violence and assaulted police officers; they inspired the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who cited their work extensively before he killed 77 people whom he blamed for the “Islamization” of Europe; and they have raised money for the producer of “Innocence of Muslims,” the film posted on YouTube that intentionally antagonized followers of the Islamic faith by disparaging the Prophet Muhammad.
These bus advertisements, though surely protected by free speech, are not advancing the cause of liberty. They are destroying it. Geller, Spencer and the terrorists whose images and quotes appear on the buses all insist on the same severe definition of “jihad.” The similarity in their understanding is telling. In each of their quests to save the world, whether through acts of terrorism or propaganda, they are making a peaceful future more difficult to imagine.
Nathan Lean is the editor-in-chief of Aslan Media and the author of three books, including the award-winning “The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims.” He lives in Washington, D.C.