The Chicago Transit Agency says it has no choice but to run controversial new ads that exhort the public to “defeat jihad.” The campaign debuted on 10 CTA buses this week, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, and will run for four weeks.
The ads read “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.” They urge support for Coptic Christians, a minority Christian group from Egypt, and end with the words “defeat jihad.”
Ahmed Rehab, Executive Director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called the ads “disgusting” and “racist,” though unsurprising. The AFDI, headed by conservative anti-Islam pundit Pamela Geller, has run similar ad campaigns on transit systems in New York and Washington, DC.
In an interview on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift program, Geller said she was surprised by the controversy the ads have elicited in Chicago. “Savage is an absolutely correct and accurate word,” she said. “This does not speak to all Muslims. Clearly, who suffered more under jihadi wars and sharia than moderate and secular Muslims?” Geller claimed that the CTA has run ads that call for the end of U.S. aid to Israel, without provoking similar backlash. She also claimed that her message has support from Muslims who are afraid to voice similar beliefs in their own communities.
Courts have ruled that AFDI’s ads are protected under the First Amendment rights in cases that involved other transit agencies. Brian Steele, a spokesman for the CTA, said for this reason, the Chicago agency is running the ads, despite its objection to the campaign’s divisive message. According to Steele, the ads bring $4,500 in revenue to the transit agency.
“CTA does have anti-disparagement in our current advertising guidelines, which basically says that advertisements that disparages or ridicules individuals based upon their race, sex, age, religion, etc., are prohibited,” said Brian Steele, spokesman for the CTA. “However, those guidelines, again which are in place in other transit agencies throughout the country, have not held up to the legal challenges that the AFDI has put forth in other cities throughout the country.”
Rehab said he appreciates the CTA’s position, and the agency’s public statements that disavow the message of the ads. Still, he said if a similar campaign targeted other minority races, religions, or orientations, he would expect to see a wider mainstream backlash against it. He said his organization will attempt to counter the ads with its own, drawing from a growing social network campaign called “My Jihad” that it launched on Twitter and Facebook just months ago.
“Basically the whole point of this campaign is to reclaim back the central concepts, the central tenets, of Islam,” said Rehab. He said the campaign will show “jihad” to be a concept relating to individual and personal struggles, rather than to a notion of war or violent conflict. “If you’re a student trying to make it through school and basically having two jobs, or pay off your tuition, etcetera, that’s your jihad,” he said.
Zaher Sahloul said while the ads are offensive, he doesn’t expect their message to gain much foothold in Chicago. “It’s probably going to, if anything, energize the civic and faith community in Chicago,” he said. “Muslims, Jews, and Christians and people of other faiths are united here in Chicago for social justice, (against) anti-Semitism, against Islamophobia, against attacks on civil rights for any faith group or minority.”