We — the undersigned leaders, clergy, religious scholars representing the mosaic of faith communities in Philadelphia — strongly condemn the content of the anti-Muslim ads targeted for SEPTA. The real purpose of these ads, bought and paid for by anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller and her misnamed “American Freedom Defense Initiative,” is to sow mistrust and hatred between Philadelphians of different religions, and as such, these ads should be denounced by all people concerned about interfaith relations and the civic life of our city.
As defenders of the First Amendment, however, we support Ms. Geller’s right to free speech, no matter how spiteful her words, and we do not seek to ban her ads from SEPTA buses and billboards. As people of faith, we believe it is better to expose ignorance to the light of reason than to try to keep it in the shadows. For the thousands of Philadelphians who are Muslims, or who have Muslim friends and neighbors, these ads will be nothing more than a reminder that this kind of open bigotry still exists, and that we need each other’s support to fight it. Indeed, Islamophobic groups like Ms. Geller’s are stunningly well-funded, taking in over a hundred million dollars between 2008 and 2011 to spend on hate speech that distorts Islam and smears American Muslims. These ads, also running in Washington D.C., New York City, and San Francisco, are stark evidence of the need to organize and finance efforts to counter this hate and to build bridges among America’s faith communities.
SEPTA’s refusal to air the ads is no doubt motivated by their disgust with the ads — a disgust we share. But in Philadelphia — the birthplace of the Constitution, the city of William Penn and Quaker values, and where a statue to religious liberty stands astride Independence Mall — these ads offer an opportunity to re-affirm our belief in free speech, even for the hate-monger. And in responding to the ads — no matter our differences on other issues — we can demonstrate another of Philadelphia’s great legacies: religious pluralism and interfaith tolerance, ideas that have the power to bring us together rather than divide us by creed.