Arun Venugopal is a reporter and the creator of Micropolis, WNYC’s multi-platform series examining race, sexuality, religion, street life and other issues that define New York City. He has been with the station since 2005, and has covered a wide range of stories, including the death of Sean Bell, the controversy over the Park 51 mosque and community center and Occupy Wall Street .
Islam and the Bus Ads
Thursday, May 27, 2010 - 06:03 PM
In the immediate aftermath of the Times Square bombing attempt, I kept waiting for reports of backlash incidents. There were plenty of attacks after 9/11, against both Muslims and Sikhs, but what kind of response would a failed attack bring?
So far, Faisal Shahzad's arrest hasn't inspired the same sort of backlash, although the NYPD is being asked to investigate the beating of a 57-year-old Bangladeshi man, who was jumped but not robbed.
However, it's hard to view attitudes towards Muslims as what they were, prior to Times Square. There are now about 30 buses driving around New York, with "Leaving Islam?" ads pasted on their sides. They may have been designed and booked well before the Times Square attack, but their significance is increased substantially by having appeared afterward. What makes them more potent than your standard Facebook discussions or YouTube vitriol is their sheer physicality, and the knowledge that they are being seen by many people at the same time.
The mind behind the bus ad campaign, Pam Geller, calls it a "human rights initiative."
"Islamic law mandates death for those who leave Islam," she wrote me. "The Rifqa Bary case in Ohio shows that people who leave Islam are threatened even in the U.S. We intend through these ads to offer help to Muslims in the situation of wanting to leave Islam and being threatened -- it's a matter of the defense of human rights and the freedom of conscience."
She said the ads cost a little more than $8,000, "and were funded by free citizens making small contributions to the initiative because they recognized its value."
But I think it's safe to say this isn't just about conversion. Geller, after all, runs another effort, Stop Islamization of America, part of a Stop Islamization network that runs throughout Europe. She and her allies have also actively opposed the planned Islamic center near the World Trade Center site. Like the bus ads, the intense mobilization against the facility (including a feisty showing at a Community Board meeting) seems particularly strong because of the timing -- just weeks after Faisal Shahzad's arrest.
Judging by the growing and highly vocal Facebook group, this isn't going away soon. But it's the physical manifestation that I think is noteworthy. I wondered, do Muslims worry about that?
"Yes," wrote Adem Carroll of the Muslim Consultative Network, in an email to me. "Getting to feel like we muslim americans are living under occupation... My colleagues who attended the recent community board meeting re proposed center said it was scary."
However, Azeem Khan of the Islamic Circle of North America wasn't too concerned.
"I think it’s a good thing, because now people are outing themselves as bigots," he said, regarding the bus ads. "Before, it was just statements that they could hide behind on their blogs. But now they’re really putting themselves out there. The larger American society doesn’t stand for bigotry, and when they see it they know what it is."
Khan also thinks the effort has gotten where it is because of support from non-New Yorkers. In his view, most New Yorkers wouldn't support a bus ad campaign because they actually know Muslims.
That said, he was attending the Subway Series recently, with his family, and they weren't off limits.
"My wife and her friends were walking around – they were wearing hijabs. Someone said to them, 'Don’t bomb this place.'”
"There’s always nonsense like that," he said. "Sometimes you have to brush it off and deal with it. We don’t have any choice."