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Train ads cause furor, charges of anti-Islam bigotry

Ads like this one at the Metro North Station in Cos Cob were placed in several stations along the New Haven Line, reportedly including Darien and Noroton Heights, although they weren’t there Monday morning. (Ken Borsuk photo)

New billboard ads posted at Metro-North Railroad stations in Connecticut are raising eyebrows of commuters and condemnation from area officials.

The ads, which are being paid for by a group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which was created by right-wing blogs and think tanks, have been criticized as racist and anti-Islamic because of their claims that 19,250 “terrorist attacks” have been carried out by Muslims since Sept. 11, 2001. The ads post that number while saying “It’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamorealism.”

The group said it bought ad space at stations along on all three main Metro-North lines.

Though Noroton Heights and Darien were among the listed stations the group ran ads, the ads were not up at either station on Monday morning. The other New Haven Line stations listed were Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Harrison, Greenwich, Cos Cob, Riverside, South Norwalk and Harlem-125th Street.

The station ads are all placed along train platforms so they can be seen from those inside and outside rail cars.

At the downtown Greenwich station, which is the most heavily used of that town’s stations, the ad was up but was ripped down by someone, leaving only a tatter of the ad remaining. At the Old Greenwich station, the ad is not displayed but there is a blank spot where no ad is currently displayed, leaving open the possibility that it was vandalized there too.

Sarah Littman of Greenwich saw the ad at the Cos Cob Station this month and quickly filed a letter of complaint with both the Mass Transit Authority, the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, the Greenwich Board of Selectmen and Representative Town Meeting and State Rep. Fred Camillo (R-Greenwich).

“I was shocked and incredibly offended when I saw the ad,” Littman told the Greenwich Post, a Hersam Acorn Newspaper. She added that she has received a lot of support from those she has written to. “One of the reasons I love living in Cos Cob is that it has such a small town, bucolic feel to it with a strong sense of community. To have this kind of dreadful hate speech blasting you in the face as soon as you drive into the parking lot was shocking to me.”

The ads are being paid for by blogger Pamela Geller, who lists her own blog AtlasShrugs.com on the signs along with two other websites, JihadWatch.org and sioa.us. Geller has come under heavy criticism for past statements made on her blog attacking Islam, President Obama and Democrats in general. In an interview, she said she is only trying to make people aware “of the nature and magnitude of the jihad threat” and claims the number of attacks cited in the ad is a fact taken from the website TheReligionOfPeace.com, which has also been accused of inflating its numbers and making racist and unfair criticisms of Islam.

Geller has brought this campaign nationally, recently taking out ads in San Francisco, with even stronger language, saying supporting Israel and “defeating jihad” is supporting the “civilized man” over the “savage.” Those ads have not been displayed in the area. Last month, a New York judge upheld her ability to run the ads under First Amendment grounds of freedom of speech when the MTA tried to block them.

“It is not creating paranoia or calling for discrimination to declare opposition to an ideology that denies the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, and the equality of rights of all people before the law,” Geller said.

She later added, “The core texts and teachings of Islam teach warfare against and subjugation of non-Muslims. Those who commit violence in the name of Islam can and do point to those teachings to justify their actions, and armed group of Muslims are committing violence in the name of Islam on a virtually daily basis around the world. There are, by contrast, no armed groups committing violence in the name of Judaism and Christianity and justifying them by reference to the Torah or the New Testament, and those religions do not teach the necessity to wage war against and subjugate unbelievers.”

Statements such as that from Geller have earned her sharp criticism in the past as have her associations with far-right European anti-Islamic organizations that have been classified as hate groups internationally. The Southern Poverty Law Center has her listed as one “30 new activists heading up the radical right.”

Littman of Greenwich said that what the sign represents and the statements of the people behind the ads are destructive and bigoted.

“As a Jew I find it particularly outrageous,” Littman said. “If more people in Germany had stood up when there was anti-Jewish rhetoric and not just been bystanders, then perhaps my relatives might have survived. I feel very strongly whenever you see this kind of bigoted and hate-filled rhetoric. It’s very important for me as a human being and particularly as a Jew to stand up against it.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Islamic civil rights and education group, also denounced the ads as bigoted.

Geller said she bought the ads in response to ads she and others considered anti-Israel that were purchased for 100 stations by a pro-Palestinian advocacy group. She said her ad buy is for 50 stations throughout Connecticut, Westchester and New York City and wondered why there hadn’t been a similar sense of outrage over the anti-Israel ads. She said she is not condemning all of Islam or all Muslims, only those who support what she says is a jihad against Western civilization.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz, in a prepared statement, said that the message of the ads was not endorsed by the agency and that it was “reviewing” its policy for taking ads. Ortiz said that all ads, including these ones, are reviewed by the MTA and its ad vendor, CBS Outdoor, “for consistency with our advertising standards.”

“The MTA sells advertising space to raise revenue to support mass transit operations,” the statement said. “The MTA’s existing policy for ads carried on subways, buses and trains permits both commercial and non-commercial paid advertisements. The MTA does not decide whether to allow a proposed advertisement based upon its viewpoint and the MTA does not endorse the viewpoint in this or any other paid advertisement. The MTA is currently reviewing its policy of accepting non-commercial viewpoint advertisements.”

While the town does not have any kind of authority over the ads displayed at the train stations, there have been instances where protests in Greenwich have caused billboards to be removed. In 2000, residents cried foul over a sexually provocative advertisement on the Post Road for the short-lived Fox television series “The Street” and it was taken down.

Greenwich Selectman Drew Marzullo said that he was offended by the signs as well and that while he understood that there is protected freedom of speech to protest, such as when the Westboro Baptist Church protests at military funerals with “sick” and “evil” anti-gay messages, there is a question of whether that applies here since the MTA, like with any advertisement, is making a business decision in accepting money to display the signs.

“All this sign will do is create conflict, elicit hateful feelings and do nothing to bring good people on all sides together,” Marzullo said. “Speech has real consequences and affects real people. Who wants to be taking the train as a commuter or just enjoying a trip somewhere and be subjected to someone else’s agenda? The goal should be for people of different faiths to live in peace and this is surely not the way to go about it.”

This has attracted the attention of U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, Democrat of Cos Cob in Greenwich, who represents New Canaan and most of Fairfield County.

“I am greatly disturbed to see the anti-Islamic signs at Metro North stations,” Himes said in a statement issued to the Greenwich Post. “Condemning an entire religion for the actions of its worst extremists is ignorant and wrong. I cherish our free speech, but hate speech has no place in the public discourse.”

Local religious leaders have also condemned the ads. Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz of Temple Shalom in Greenwich said he did not support the ad’s message.

“Any language of hostility or hatred is inflammatory and not productive,” Rabbi Hurvitz said. “Fundamentalism in any form is dangerous no matter if its Jewish, Christian or Islamic. The messages of hate should be rejected in any form and instead we should embrace the teachings of love.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relation’s National Communications Director Ibrahaim Hooper told the Post that CAIR “stands by the First Amendment’s right to free speech” and noted the organization’s past support of controversial talk show host Michael Savage when Great Britain tried to bar him from entering the country due to past comments he made that were anti-Islamic. Hooper said they believe even hateful speech should be heard and, instead, combated with speech about tolerance so there was no official call for the ads to be taken down, but he did strongly criticize Geller.

“She cannot open her mouth without saying something bigoted and hateful toward Islam and toward American Muslims,” Hooper said.

Hooper added that Geller’s comments and association with European hate groups had caused her group, Stop The Islamization of America, to be declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and for the Anti Defamation League, one of the world’s leading groups against anti-Semitism, to condemn it.

Geller responded harshly to the Post, calling CAIR a “Hamas-linked Muslim Brotherhood front group that engages in smears and defamation against anyone who opposes the jihad and Islamic supremacism”, a charge the organization strongly denies, and saying the Southern Poverty Law Center is “the real hate group.”

“They are intent on demonizing and destroying legitimate conservative voices by lumping them in with the likes of the KKK,” Geller said, adding the Anti Defamation League “… should stop attacking Jews and redirect their barbs at the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Geller also responded by saying that Rabbi Hurvitz “should be more thoughtful and less silly” and claimed that “It is no more hostile or hateful to oppose jihad terror and Islamic supremacism than it was to oppose Nazism or Communism.”

Geller said the vandalized signs in town would be replaced and that her contract to run them lasts a month.

Ken Borsuk is editor of the Greenwich Post, a Hersam Acorn newspaper. He can be reached at editor@greenwich-post.com.

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