Posted by Mahmoud Abunie on March 29, 2016 in Blog

Today, more than ever, Arab Americans and American Muslims are suffering because of negative rhetoric that undermines American values. As anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry rises, many people are asking if this fervor will cease. In the meantime, creative and positive responses are helping uplift targeted communities.

On March 7th the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (NYMTA) debuted posters in its subway stations produced by American Muslim comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah. The ads "poke fun" at Muslims in an effort to dispel negative stereotypes of the community. One of the ads boldly proclaims “Beware The Muslims are Coming!” then adds, in smaller print, “And they shall strike with hugs so fierce, you’ll end up calling your grandmother and telling her you love her.” Obeidallah and Farsad say they want to use humor as a means to generate understanding and create connections between communities. “We’re thrilled that finally our posters will go up and people will start loving Muslims!” Obeidallah says humorously.

In addition to generating understanding between communities, the ads were partly in response to a 2012 campaign headed by anti-Arab and anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller. She had sought to place a series of bigoted ads throughout the NYMTA system. Some read, “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Quran.” She had to go to court where she defended her campaign saying it was First Amendment protected speech and eventually won. However, in April of 2015, the NYMTA issued a new rule stating any ads expressing an opinion regarding “disputed economic, political, moral religious or social issues” will not be allowed, thus Geller’s ads are not allowed to be posted.

Oddly, although Obeidallah and Farsad’s ads were humorous and not political, NYMTA refused to post them saying they were “political.” Obeidallah and Farad went to court with help from Muslim Advocates and, after a months-long legal battle, the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled their message was not “predominately political,” paving the way for the ads to go up.  

The bigoted rhetoric from politicians has not ceased, but the remedy these ad campaigns offer reminds us that the best way to combat hate speech is more speech, and that a humorous tone can help steer the national discourse in a better direction. There are many ways an individual can help stop bigotry and hate in our society, from taking positive action to signing a pledge, or even telling a joke, grassroots efforts and engagement are the best ways to help achieve an open and free society for all. 

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