“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
Where do you think you could read this piece of religious hate-mongering? On the blog of some ultra-right wing nationalist like Anders Breivik? Scrawled on the walls of a Palestinian dwelling by Jewish settlers? Perhaps the words of some British political relic at the time of the break up of the empire?
Think again. If you live in New York, you can read these words everyday on your trip to work on the subway or the New York buses.
Although the New York transport authorities don’t want these pieces of propaganda, effectively labelling all Muslims savages, displayed on their property, they don’t have a choice; a huge public outcry and two court cases have failed to get them removed. This also came soon after Google refused to take down the anti-a film clip of Mohammed, following a request from the White House. But it is not the refusal to limit freedom of speech that should worry us, it's the attitude to Islam and Muslims in general. This is far deeper rooted in the West’s consciousness than many of us would like to admit.
The New York ads are the work of The American Freedom Defense Initiative, an openly anti-Islam organisation, but similar representations of Muslims fill our mainstream press. Just take the recent example of Newsweek’s Muslim Rage article.
In fact, this kind of reporting has been going to for years. In 2011, for example, a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria was bombed by a Muslim extremist during a midnight mass on New Year’s Eve. The bomb blast outside ‘The Church of Saint Mark and Pope Peter’ killed 23 and injured almost a hundred people.
The news was covered by every large western media outlet as well as reports of other Muslim Egyptians cheering when they heard the news of the deaths. You just have to Google the subject to see how much coverage was devoted to this act of terror by a single extremist. But the actions of thousands of moderate Muslims that came next received far less coverage.
Sickened by the attack, thousands of Egyptian Muslims crowded around the church to form a human shield to protect the Coptic Christians from further attacks during their continuing Christmas prayers. And in a further show of solidarity, thousands of people all across Egypt changed their Facebook profile pictures to the cross and crescent, the symbol of Muslim and Christian unity.
If you Google this peaceful follow up you get far fewer results. Type ‘Muslims protect Coptic Christians’ into Google and it either autocorrects to ‘Muslims protest’ – a much more popular search term - or produces a flurry of results about the reverse scenario – Christians protecting Muslims during prayer in Tahrir Square.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the skewed media coverage, but more importantly neither should we be surprised by the spontaneous outpouring of compassion and tolerance from a Muslim community towards a Christian one. Historically Islam has as much claim to be the religion of forgiveness as Christianity.
It starts with the Quran where the most common word is not jihad or fatwa as some would have us believe, but is in fact rahmah which translates as 'mercy' or 'compassion'.
Fast forward a few hundred years and witness the great jihad of the middle ages when vast hordes of barbaric wild-eyed and hirsute religious zealots raped, burned, pillaged and slaughtered their was right through the heart of a great and civilized empire. Or, as is otherwise known, the Crusades.
At a time when Jews in Christian Europe lived a life of fear, suppression and frequent slaughter, the large Jewish community in Al Andalus or Muslim Spain was free to practice its own religion and go about its business in freedom. Jewish and Christian communities prospered and Muslim Spain is widely regarded as something of a golden age of religious tolerance, where the three faiths lived in relative harmony under the Islamic aegis.
Arabic Spain was, of course, reconquered by the Christians and the Islamic Arabic empire ultimately faded away. But not all empires are geographic. It is the corporate and media empires of the West that wield disproportionate power these days.