We don’t have to look far back into American history to see when the words “savage” and “civilized” were used to justify the oppression of various American communities. Among others, Catholic Americans, Jewish Americans, African Americans and Native Americans have been victims of this shameful slander. Ads placed in four local Metro stations last week borrow shamelessly from this rejected pattern of our past.
The ads, placed by Pamela Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative, read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Riders who pass through the Glenmont, Tacoma Park, U Street and Georgia/Petworth stations are now confronted by this hateful language.
The ads do absolutely nothing to strengthen our nation as we work to unite and work for peace in the face of violence. Instead, they exploit very real concerns in order to cultivate mistrust of those who practice Islam. As such, these ads are an embarrassing example of hate speech. They rely solely on bigotry and ignorance to reduce a complex conflict to simplistic and simple-minded stereotypes. Hate speech cannot address the complexity of issues we face as a country. Rather, it deepens misconceptions and far too often promotes violence.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, faith leaders play an essential role in speaking out against hate, especially when it targets a fellow faith community. It falls on our shoulders tocounter the misinformation about American Muslims that has become commonplace in media, in religious education and in our congregations.
Religious freedom is a foundational value in our Constitution. What the Constitution legislates, citizens have the responsibility to uphold. When anti-Muslim sentiment rises to a level that jeopardizes American Muslims’ opportunity to practice their faith without fear of reprisal, it undermines the ability of other faith communities to depend on this essential American right. As citizens of faith, we must therefore adamantly defend the protections of those of different faiths.
American Muslims already face increasing rates of discrimination in government training materials, legislation aimed at religious law, zoning manipulation and attacks on personsand property. We are deeply concerned that the public display of this message, which dehumanizes Muslims and thereby validates violence against them, adds to a cumulative impact on our community and on our society. Misinformation becomes mainstream and provides fuel to deepen divisions between Americans.
Our nation has prided itself, since its founding, as a home for all to practice their faith without fear of prejudice or discrimination. We have no more to fear from American Muslims than from Americans of any faith or no faith at all. They are our neighbors. They proudly serve in our military and as doctors, school teachers and local first responders. We stand shoulder to shoulder with them, and they stand shoulder to shoulder with us.
The Constitution also guarantees free speech, which allows Ms. Geller and her colleagues at AFDI the right to insist that we return again to a society where exclusion and oppression can be justified by pitting the “civilized” against the “savage.” But a right to hate speech does not make hate speech right. As you travel to work, shop for groceries or ride with your children to the monuments to our freedom, look with pride at the faces of American diversity and look away from the words that bring us shame.
Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria is director of public policy for the Rabbinical Assembly. The Rev. Clark Lobenstine is executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. Moline and Lobenstine are partnering with Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a national campaign of interfaith, faith-based and religious organizations dedicated to ending anti-Muslim sentiment, and are contributors to The Washington Post’s local faith leader network .
We call upon our fellow citizens to treat each other with compassion and honesty, and to foster an ethical commitment to bedrock American values such as pluralism and religious freedom, mutuality and respect—values also at the core of our religious traditions.