The controversial new bus ad.
Pamela Geller is at it again. Her new set of black and white posters on Metro buses in Washington, D.C. declare: “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s In the Quran. Two Thirds of All U.S. Aid Goes to Islamic Countries. Stop Racism. End All Aid to Islamic Countries.” An accompanying photo shows Adolph Hitler meeting with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem during the Mandate period.
Geller is known for her inflammatory ads. But I admit that this one makes me think.
Geller’s 2012 ads — which D.C. Metro initially rejected before a federal judge ordered the transit operator to accept them — were as xenophobic as they come. “In the war between the civilized man and the savage,” the 2012 posters declared, “support the civilized man.”
Calling — either directly or by insinuation — an entire ethnic, national or religious group “savage” clearly falls on the side of racism. Short of using Nazi-esque epithets like vermin, that sort of discourse is dehumanization at its starkest. In academic terms, it’s a descriptor that we’d call unfalsifiable — it can’t be proven (how would one go about determining “savagery”) and so it’s nonsensical at best.
But is accusing a group of being racist the same as being racist towards them? No doubt, in this latest round of ads, Geller is attempting to “other” the Muslim world, and that’s certainly not a strategy for world peace. And the 1941 photograph of the Mufti with the Fuhrer — while capturing an accurate historical moment when the Palestinian leadership chose the wrong side in the lead-up to World War II — doesn’t do much to illuminate today’s geopolitical dynamics.
But what if Geller is expressing a genuine fear — one shared by thousands of people across the globe? What if her accusations of “Jew hatred” being promoted in the Koran stem from a belief — however unscholarly — that some religions are at their core suspicious of others? And what if we could use Geller’s own accusations to undermine that fear?
Here’s an idea: Maybe this latest round of ads by Pamela Geller could actually launch an interfaith dialogue. Think about it — what better to prompt a discussion between Jews and Muslims than one of these ads?
The discussion would start as a conversation about scripture, values and religion — with lots of talk about how terms like “infidels” and “jihad” are used and heard; what the legacy of phrases like “People of the Book” are now that Jewish communities have mostly left Muslim countries; and how different belief systems understand concepts like war, peace, force and negotiation. It would then likely meander over to the areas of politics and foreign policy. These issues would include U.S. diplomatic and military actions in the Muslim world, the legacy of 9/11, and Israeli and Palestinian policies towards one another.
The only ground rule would be this: as loud as Geller-minded participants preach, they must be willing to listen just as intently.
Pop psychologists have a name for the kind of communication Geller tends to promote: “you messages.” In our professional and personal relationships, most of us have been there. We often lash out at people around us when we ourselves are feeling vulnerable. We tend to assume others’ negative behavior and bad intentions are more consistent than they really are.
Clearly, dialogue is not Geller’s style. But the rest of us might pause to wonder where we can go from here, if we’re willing to start asking questions about others’ needs, desires and beliefs, rather than preemptively declaring what we think they are. And if we can achieve that goal by using Geller’s own messages against her? So much the better.