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When Ads Preach Hatred

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The author, shocked by an anti-Islam advertisement posted at her local train station, is more disturbed at how such sentiments take root in American soil – especially at a time when such hate statements have triggered extreme anti-American acts abroad.

This week marks 11 years since terrorist attacks brought down the World Trade Center towers. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Americans, vulnerable and blind-sided by the tragedy, were inundated with us-versus-them rhetoric, reinforced by the president and other elected officials. The language of hatred slated Western, Christian, and American against all that was non-Western, non-Christian, and not American. In the minds of many, fear of terrorists legitimized the Patriot Act, which institutionalized racial profiling, and excused the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

More than a decade has passed, yet the deep hatred in the United States of those who practice Islam has not subsided. In fact, the radical right – which has increasingly become part of the GOP’s status quo – has held onto these beliefs both proudly and shamelessly.

Some weeks ago, I confronted startling evidence of this mindset as I disembarked from a Metro North train at the end of my weekday commute to and from New York City. Amid the familiar army of black and navy blue suits eager to join families for dinner, I noticed a stark, black advertisement with red, white, and blue type: "*19,250 DEADLY  ISLAMIC ATTACKS SINCE 9/11/01 *AND COUNTING. IT’S NOT ISLAMOPHOBIA, IT’S ISLMAOREALISM.”

According to Mother Jones magazine, the ad and others targeting New York and San Francisco commuters are sponsored by the anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller. She made headlines last year when she backed other ads castigating a proposed Islamic community center near ground zero, calling it a “mega mosque” and a “victory mosque” that celebrated 9/11. She rose to prominence with her anti-Muslim website “Atlas Shrugs,” named in honor of Ayn Rand (the late, iconic novelist whose economic philosophy inspires GOP vice-president nominee Paul Ryan). By mid-2010, Geller became a fixture on Fox News, commenting on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the threat of Muslims and Shariah law in the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Geller’s organization, Stop Islamization of America, a hate group.

Combined with her seething hatred of Islam, Geller’s other claims make it hard to define her as anything other than a white supremacist. She is a birther who has described Obama as beholden to his “Islamic overlords,” and as one who wants jihad to be victorious in America. She has denied the existence of Serbian concentration camps in the 1990s and believes that black South Africans are engaging in genocide against white South Africans.

The anti-Islam ads, however, are not random outliers or radical statements. Instead, they represent a fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam that has been particularly rife of late.

Take, for instance, in July when Representative Michele Bachmann and four other members of Congress claimed that Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, is connected to a Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the U.S. government. Also that month Tea Party activists initiated a witchhunt against Samar Ali, a former White House fellow and current international director of Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development. After her appointment, a vocal group of conservatives and Tea Partyers claimed that Ali is a sleeper agent. Frank Gaffney's right-wing think tank, the Center for Security Policy, wrote in a blog post: “it is reasonable to expect that the financial jihadists will soon be targeting the volunteer state for infiltration and influence operations.”

The most disturbing instance of anti-Islamic sentiment this summer did not come from the mouth of a prominent politician or commentator, but rather, from the barrel of a Springfield 9mm semiautomatic handgun. Wade Page, the Army veteran with ties to white supremacist groups who opened fire on a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, ruthlessly gunned down six worshippers. While Sikhism is a distinct religion from Islam, many Sikhs have been targeted alongside Muslims since 9/11. The sentiment, a horribly bloody form of McCarthyism, seems to be: if you worship differently, dress differently, and have brown skin, you are a terrorist, and you will be targeted.

While the radical right’s increasingly accepted fear and hatred of Muslims is disturbing in its own right, journalists point to an equally disturbing silence by the left on these issues. Both The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer have noted that the Democratic National Convention barely touched the issue of Islamophobia in the United States. Unlike in 2008 when, in the wake of the Bush era, civil liberties was a platform issue at the DNC, this year Democrats pushed once-hot button topics like Guantanamo Bay, racial profiling in fighting terrorism, warrantless surveillance, and indefinite detention under the rug.

While the United States has made progress on some fronts since the fateful attacks on our country on September 11 – the news for example that Ground Zero victims will be compensated and treated for cancer – we have not come very far. The fact that Islamaphobia has entrenched itself into the billboards of our train and subway stations, passively creating a radical and dangerous conception of the Middle East, is unacceptable in the year 2012. The true measure of progress in our country will be when these types of advertisements exist only from fringe groups, and not from individuals whose beliefs represent a sizable wing of an entire political party, when influential individuals like Michele Bachmann are no longer conceived of as viable presidential candidates, and when our children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren will gawk in disbelief at the idea that violence against Muslims existed in the 21st century.

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