NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 27: People walk by a controversial ad, which has already been defaced, that condemns radical Islam in a New York subway station on September 27, 2012 in New York City. The ads, which are appearing in New York after a court case ruled in their favor, are being funded by Pamela Geller, who once headed a campaign against an Islamic center near the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack site. The ad reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Thirty-seconds on Google is all it takes to find material that would be offensive to a particular race, religion, or ethnicity. This makes the last several weeks very interesting as someone who is Muslim. For all the nonsense that can be found, a poorly produced, almost comical movie denigrating prophet Muhammad became the center of controversy in the Muslim world.
Some (not all, but some) Muslims chose to react violently, leading to the death of many innocent individuals, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The riots have also continued to perpetuate a narrative about Muslims generally; that we are crazy, violent, and uncivilized. Thankfully, a number of individuals and Muslim organizations, especially in the United States, denounced the violence swiftly and outright.
Fast-forward about a week later, and move halfway across the globe—in New York City where advertisements are going up on subway train cars that say: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Muslims in New York and throughout the country are outraged, many voicing their opinions to the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the group responsible for the ad.
People are offended. But why? It depends on how you read the sign. If you read it to mean, “Defeat Radical Islam” or “Defeat Terrorism,” then there shouldn’t really be a problem. And it’s true that “savage” is a strong word, but what better way to describe terrorism than “savage?” The argument, of course, is that the sign doesn’t say those things; it simply says “Jihad,” which is meant to imply Islam, not simply radical terrorist organizations.
While the outcry against the sign can be justified, there might be more to gain by remaining apathetic to the sign. More pointedly, Muslims should not to be angered by the sign. It may very well be the case that the motivation behind the sign is not to spread a message, but to provoke a response by Muslims in America. To give naysayers something concrete to point to and say “look at those Muslims, there they go again.” Why give the sign more free press, why turn this into a “debate,” why dignify ignorance with a measured, educated response?
American Muslims have an opportunity to show the world how to handle offensive speech. By ignoring it or making fun of it—not by getting upset over it. We should save our energy, our passion, and our dedication for the fight that really matters: the battle for the soul of Islam. Who speaks for Islam? Is it the millions of peaceful adherents, or the radicals who turn to violence? Because if we don’t win that battle, a subway poster here and a juvenile movie there, will be the least of our problems.
We will never be able to protest against every single piece of bigoted or religiously offensive material. But what we can do is continue to make such claims so absurd, that they cease to have any real value. Every time a Muslim befriends someone, that sign has less influence. Every time a Muslim doctor saves a life, that sign has less influence. Every time a Muslim just lives their life, as any other person would, the narrative sought to be bolstered through ads and movies like we’ve seen over the last few weeks, becomes less powerful.
So in the meantime, keep calm and carry on.
Khurram Dara is the author of “The Crescent Directive: An essay on improving the image of Islam in America.” Follow him on Twitter @KhurramDara.