Pamela Geller’s Anti-Islam Billboards, and Why Billboards Can Be Harmful

This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.

Before I even saw an image of the latest ad that Pamela Geller plans to post all over New York City, I cringed and thought to myself: “What does Pamela Geller believe she is accomplishing?”

Earlier this year, Geller’s ads calling Muslims “savages” created a storm of controversy, inspiring a whole lot of interfaith activism in response. (Including this wonderful counter campaign.)

But her new batch of ads go even further. In case you haven’t seen them yet, here is an image from her latest ad campaign:

Pretty disgusting, eh?

Geller rose to notoriety as one of the key instigators of the Park51 backlash, misrepresenting a proposed Islamic Community Center (think a YMCA or Jewish Community Center) by calling it the “Ground Zero mosque” and engaging in dishonest rhetoric and blatant fearmongering. Her organization, Stop the Islamization of America, was recently identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, alongside extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis. And they’ve earned the label — Geller and her allies have dedicated countless hours and millions upon millions of dollars to drum up hatred, fear, and xenophobia toward Muslims.

This should be of great concern to Humanists, and to everyone. I am a stauch supporter of free speech, but in an ideal world billboards such as Geller’s would have no place in our society.

You can be honest about your disagreements without being hateful. I’m an atheist, and I believe that there are ideas and practices promoted by Muslims in the name of Islam that are not only false — they’re extremely harmful. But to rally against Muslims and Islam is counterproductive; it creates enemies where we need allies. There are many Muslims who oppose cruelty and violence done in the name of Islam and favor equality for all people, and they are positioned to create change. We should be working with them, not standing against all of Islam.

That’s the problem with billboards, and with sweeping, generalizing statements about entire groups of people. They don’t account for the diversity of ideas and traditions that exist within any given group of people. Geller focuses on a ridiculously tiny minority of Muslim extremists in order to paint her picture of Islam, and in doing so she neglects to account for the rich and varied traditions of generosity, selflessness, social progress, and forgiveness present within Islam. Not only that, but her efforts alienate key allies — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — who share her concerns about Muslim extremists, but who also recognize that her narrow approach is unfair and dishonest.

And this is why I, as an atheist, sometimes take issue with billboards put up by atheist organizations like American Atheists. As an example, they have posted billboards with slogans saying that Christianity has a “sadistic god” and “useless savior” and that it “promotes hate.” Here are a few images of some of their billboards:

As Chelsea addressed earlier today in one of her blogathon posts, I’m not convinced these attention-grabbing billboards help the atheist community. I don’t see this kind of discourse furthering understanding between groups of people who hold different views, or even encouraging Christians to think critically about their own beliefs and traditions; instead, these billboards seem to drum up suspicion, ill will, and often hatred — hatred of believers among atheists, and hatred of atheists among believers. Even if the intention behind such billboards is good — and I always try to assume good intentions — I don’t see them accomplishing much good. Attention to an issue is worthwhile, but only if it leads to productive conversations and constructive action. If the source of attention primarily reinforces rigid tribal boundaries between groups of people, then it doesn’t allow for an exchange of ideas between them, and it doesn’t promote critical thinking.

I want to see us progress as a society, and depose of religious doctrines that dehumanize people and inhibit social and scientific progress. But that will require reasoned, charitable, and compassionate discussion. It will require a nuanced understanding of the complexity of different people’s beliefs. It will grow out of relationships built across lines of difference. Billboards don’t seem to create those.

I wouldn’t suggest that we never use billboards to prompt societal discussions — but, like any powerful device, they must be mindfully wielded with care.

Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard. He is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, and the founder of the blog NonProphet Status.

One comment on “Pamela Geller’s Anti-Islam Billboards, and Why Billboards Can Be Harmful

  1. Pingback: Pamela Geller’s Anti-Islam Billboards, and Why Billboards Can Be Harmful | NonProphet Status

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