“YESTERDAY’S MODERATE IS TODAY’S HEADLINE.”
These words have popped up across the city, displayed on the sides of MUNI buses, positioned above two pictures of Abdel Bary, an ISIS member. In the first, he is dressed in a red tracksuit and baseball cap, wearing headphones and singing into a microphone. In the second, he is dressed in black, a mask over his face, pixels blurring the severed head which he dangles in the air. Below the images are the words “before becoming devout” and “after becoming devout.” Along the bottom of the ad,“IT’S NOT ISLAMOPHOBIA. IT’S ISLAMOREALISM” is written in red.
These ads are paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a NYC-based organization labeled as an active anti-Muslim group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to their website, the ad campaign aims to tell “Truths About Islam and Jihad That Government and Media Ignore.” This ad campaign has also run in New York City.
This is not the first time AFDI has run blatantly prejudiced propaganda in San Francisco. In August of 2012 and March 2013, MUNI fell under criticism for AFDI’s anti-Palestine ads, which included the statement “In the war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel.” MUNI responded by running disclaimers next to the advertisements, and donating the profits collected from AFDI to the Human Rights Commission. The SF Human Rights Commission “works to provide leadership and advocacy to secure, protect and promote human rights for all people.” This time, however, MUNI has yet to respond.
In 2012, the MTA in New York City was brought to court after they refused to display the “Civilized man” ad in the subway system. Their decision was ruled as a violation of First Amendment rights, as the AFDI’s message was considered “core political speech,” which is highly protected under the Constitution. Because of this ruling, MUNI cannot technically remove the islamophobic ads nor refuse to display them—but nothing prevents MUNI for running disclaimer ads alongside the prejudiced ones, as they have done before.
In response to their inaction, MUNI claims that AFDI’s ads are in compliance with the advertising policies of their ad vendor, Titan Outdoor. On their website, MUNI also stipulates that advertising on should comply with their own standards, which include goals such as the creation of a safer transportation experience, and exclude advertisement that are, among other things, “clearly defamatory.” What are these ads—which imply that all Muslims are prone to violent, extreme actions—if not defamatory? The advertisements exist as fear-mongering hate speech, and even if MUNI has chosen to overlook the “clearly defamatory” message of the ads (which they legally reserve the right to do), it is clear that the ads do nothing to create a safer environment. In fact, by running advertisements which feature harmful messages explicitly targeted towards Muslims, it can be argued that MUNI is in fact creating an unsafe transportation environment.
The fact that MUNI has made a point in the past to counter the message of these ads, but now chooses to remain silent is a problem. Even though ads run on MUNI do not necessarily reflect the views of the SFMTA, MUNI’s inaction on this issue makes the SFMTA still makes them complicit in the spread of hateful, incorrect stereotypes about Muslim people.