Reflection on Hate Speech and the Response of United Methodist Women
Because I live in Upstate New York, I have not seen in person the anti-Muslim ad currently posted in 10 New York City subway stations. But I have been closely following news stories about the controversy, and what has especially impressed me is the remarkable response by United Methodist Women. There is much to be learned from the intense debate about protected speech that the offensive ad has generated and from United Methodist Women’s reaction. Here is a kind of instructive case study for our time.
On Monday September 24 an advertisement that critics considered hateful to Muslims began appearing in subway stations. It reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
The posting of the ad had been contested for months. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) initially rejected the ad, citing its “demeaning” language; however, the organization responsible, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), sued the MTA over its refusal to display it. In July a federal judge ruled that the ad is protected speech under the First Amendment, and AFDI went forward with it.
The day after the ads went up an Egyptian-American columnist and activist was arrested in the Times Square subway station for spray-painting over the ad. The ad in other four other subway stations were defaced as well.
That same day United Methodist Women took a very different opposing tact. At a press conference on the steps of New York’s City Hall, United Methodist Women’s chief executive Harriett Olson unveiled an ad countering the message of the AFDI ad. It read, “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.” She announced that the United Methodist Women ad would be displayed at all 10 locations where the “harmfully provocative and inherently divisive” AFDI ad appears. She noted that hate speech is a form of violence and that as victims of violence women “have a particular incentive to work toward peace.”
Olson was joined by leaders from other religious traditions at the press conference, organized by the Interfaith Center of New York. Together, united, they acted to counter hate speech with speech denouncing bigotry and intolerance.
On Tuesday October 2, the United Methodist Women ads were posted in the New York subway system. The date was significant—Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.
United Methodist Women Leadership
Quite aware that they would be risking criticism, United Methodist Women stepped up to the plate. Its initiative and leadership in promoting justice and peace is awesome. I began fully to appreciate United Methodist Women members’ influence when I was commissioned by the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries to write a mission study about peace in the three Abrahamic faith traditions, Shalom, Salaam, Peace. United Methodist Women’s countering of the odious subway ad is the latest initiative in its proud history of women’s faithful activism. How I admire my sisters, and how grateful I am for an opportunity to support United Methodist Women.
Use Your Voice for Peace
In a country passionately dedicated to its First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, the antidote to hate speech is not censorship but more speech. Words of respect and outreach despite religious and cultural differences are powerful and effective. This concept isn’t always easy to grasp or accept, especially by people in countries governed by authoritarian rule.
What can women of faith do to support the peace initiatives of United Methodist Women?
- To effectively counter hate speech with speech and actions of your own, be alert and informed. It is important to follow the news. To do this is to know, for example, that the executive director of AFDI, Pamela Geller, has a well-documented history of inflammatory, anti-Islamic rhetoric.
- Speak out against hate speech; do not be silent. As the United Methodist Women subway ad states,hate speech is not civilized. The ad also challenges us: Support peace in word and deed. We must use nonviolent communication, choosing words of respect and outreach to counter words of bigotry and intolerance. Advocacy for interfaith understanding and peace need not be on a grand, public stage. It can be quite personal, within your own families, congregations and community organizations.
- Reach across faith divides to our Muslim sisters in acts of kindness and friendship. “Jihad” and “sharia law” as understood and used by mainstream Muslims pose no threat to our society. Equating all Muslims with violent, Islamic extremists leads to unnecessary fear, division and prejudice. Women are skilled at building personal relationships. We know how to connect through sharing and storytelling. We understand the healing power of acts of inclusion.
The Rev. Allison Stokes, Ph.D., is founding director of the Women’s Interfaith Institute in Seneca Falls, N.Y.