This week felt like a throwback to the 1950s, to McCarthyism and fear mongering. I, and countless others, spoke out in defense of Muslim Americans who were feeling attacked by ads on New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. public transit systems that compared Muslims to “savages”. Physical safety was of serious concern for many Muslim Americans, which is why the three transit authorities appropriately delayed or declined the ads, later to be court-ordered into running the ads.
What happened next is what alarms me most. Anyone who stepped up to defend fellow Muslim Americans was deemed by the ads’ sponsors as the “enemy.” I’ve heard this accusation before, except when I was much younger, growing up in Colorado in a Japanese internment camp.
This is what the ad says: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.” The logical and reasonable inferences here are the following: jihad (read: Muslim, due to etymology) equals savage. Muslims, thus, are savages.
Now, of course, there are people who have done violence using the name of jihad and any violence of this nature -- or any nature – should absolutely be deplored and abhorred. But the ad didn’t make this
distinction and instead assumed that all things jihad -- ergo, all things Muslim -- is “savage” and must be defeated.
It’s easy to understand why nonviolent and patriotic Muslim Americans in Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco may have been too frightened to ride public transit and, in fact, found other transport out of fear for life.
By beckoning the transit patron to wage war against the savage, the ad fell not far from falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, except this time a crowded subway system. Remember: when it comes to public safety, there are permissible limitations on free speech consistent with the terms of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The reality with religion -- whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu or other -- is that all of these groups have the potential for peace and the potential for violence. The prophets of all of the above have preached peace at some point and yet there are believers of all six of these religions that have exacted violence on others in the name of their religion.
Violent extremism in any form, under any banner, religious or other, should never be tolerated and should always be actively and aggressively prevented or stopped.
In this vein, Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups have banded together in New York City and Washington, D.C. to counter the ad’s negative narrative with positive messages. One D.C.-based nonprofit is taking out ad buys on Metro with the message “Love Your Muslim Neighbors”
and local universities are considering discussion groups at the four D.C. Metro stops that carry the ad, in an effort to educate, de-escalate and mediate a constructive way forward for religious coexistence and tolerance. This is good because it stimulates a necessary discussion on where we are headed as a nation and as an interreligious family.
Let me be absolutely clear. Protecting free speech is, without question, an essential cornerstone of this country, but so, too, is responsibility. Our founding fathers didn’t fight for free speech so that Americans could proudly and vehemently use hate speech on each other, inciting fear of each other.
This is not the America they helped build or foresaw for the future. Nor is it, frankly, what the prophets preached.
The public transit should be an inviolable public trust, where all of America’s public feels safe and welcome. That is currently not the case and it is the responsibility of members of Congress to help change that.
Since 2001, U.S. Congressman Mike Honda has represented California's 15th Congressional District, which includes western San Jose and Silicon Valley.
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