When Cyrus McGoldrick, advocacy director for the New York office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), logged into Facebook on August 12 to hint at his desire to vandalize anti-jihad ads that may soon run on city buses, he did not simply underline CAIR's troubling attitude toward free expression. McGoldrick's words -- and the subsequent actions of others -- have illuminated an overlooked aspect of the Islamist assault on Western speech: the defacement, if not obliteration, of political and commercial messages.
"In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad," states the advertisement that infuriated McGoldrick. The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) had to win a court battle to reverse the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's previous decision to reject it, but reluctant bureaucrats, who continue to delay, are not the only obstacle to disseminating these and similar views. After claiming that "the ads are great" because they expose their allegedly "racist, supremacist, hateful" backers, McGoldrick's post ends with this provocative thought: "I almost DON'T want to protest/vandalize them. But then again …" -- remarks followed by a mischievous emoticon. Coincidence or not, multiple copies of a separate AFDI "Islamorealism" ad -- citing more than 19,000 Islamic terrorist attacks worldwide since 9/11 -- were later destroyed at commuter rail stations in New York and Connecticut.
Up to now, such acts of vigilante censorship on behalf of Islam have been relatively rare in the U.S., whose First Amendment traditionally has fostered a society in which controversial speech is opposed with more speech, not crudely silenced. However, America may be inching closer to other Western nations where Islamists and their fellow travelers have long made a habit of countering "offensive" words and images with vandalism -- an important symptom of creeping Shari'a that is worth examining in detail.
Assuming that they make it past the government censors, visual critiques of Islamic practices are perpetual targets, as Sergio Redegalli can attest. In September 2010, the Australian glass sculptor decorated the exterior wall of his Newtown studio with a "Say No to Burqas" mural depicting a veiled woman inside a red circle with a line through it. News stories and blog posts chronicle the waves of abuse inflicted on the artwork -- two defacements by September 23, 2010, at least 20 by November 26, 2010, roughly 40 by January 19, 2011, and a total of 63 by February 13 of this year -- prompting Redegalli to recreate it over and over again. Though he primarily blames leftists instead of Muslims, fresh damage to the mural's driving-while-veiled version in August 2012 bears Islamist fingerprints. "Think twice before mocking Islam!!!" cautions a note placed at the scene. "We will have our rights one way or the other" -- a pledge that typically results in denying rights to everybody else, starting with the right to free speech.
Belgium provides another recent example of Islam-critical graphics being disfigured. Early this year, An-Sofie Dewinter, the daughter of anti-Islam politician Filip Dewinter, appeared in an ad campaign sporting a face veil and bikini, with "Freedom or Islam?" stamped across her chest and "You choose!" over her crotch. Radical Fouad Belkacem, a.k.a. Abu Imran, replied with a video documenting how one of the posters had been vandalized by painting a cloak-like garment atop her bare skin and writing "Welcome 2 Belgistan." The burqa debate always brings out the worst in Belkacem; he was arrested in June for urging Muslims to attack non-Muslims after the detention of a woman in face-concealing attire, which was restricted in 2011.
Efforts to cover females go beyond ads focusing on Islam. Disturbingly, commercial advertisements are in the crosshairs of Europe's Islamist morality police, for whom seeing too much of a woman's body pictured on a sheet of paper cannot be tolerated.
This phenomenon has been especially prevalent in the UK. A Times of London article revealed in 2005 that Muslims Against Advertising (MAAD) had launched a website with instructions on how to vandalize ads and which ones to select. "There is no longer any need to cringe as you walk past a sleazy poster," the group declared. "We'll improve it." Many answered the call, as ads pitching bras, beauty products, and even television programs were trashed. "Photographs of semi-dressed women are the most frequently targeted, with the offending body parts painted over or ripped off," the Times observed. In a telling example, thugs destroyed images of scantily clad women on an East London billboard promoting the series Desperate Housewives, but fully clothed characters were untouched. Responding to the controversy, leading British Islamist Ahmed Sheikh argued that "freedom of speech should end when you offend others."
The UK's Islamist vandals continue to act on this logic. "Street adverts featuring women in bikinis have been defaced in apparently targeted attacks," the Evening Standard noted in June 2010. "Police said 14 bus shelters around Tower Hamlets" -- a borough of London known for its heavy Islamist presence -- "including many in Limehouse, were hit last month." A Bollywood movie poster with a kissing couple fared no better. In May 2011, a painted-over bikini advertisement in Birmingham was "blamed on militant Muslims who were offended by her flesh," according to the Daily Mail. "I don't think it's just kids messing around," a local man asserted, because "they've spray-painted specific areas and covered up anything that might be offensive to very religious people." Later in 2011, two young Muslims admitted to multiple counts of criminal damage after they "used black paint to draw the traditional headdress over a model in a poster for Lynx deodorant." Perpetrator Mohammed Hasnath explained that "if someone was to look at our wife or mother or daughter with a bad intention we would not like it, so we were just trying to do good." The pious Hasnath's other attempts to "do good" have involved plastering London's East End with anti-gay stickers, for which he was fined, and possessing al-Qaeda magazines, which led to a 14-month sentence.
The pattern is not limited to Britain. Radio Netherlands Worldwide reported this past April: "In Kanaleneiland, a predominantly Muslim area of Utrecht, a poster advertising the open museum weekend has been covered by a black bag. The poster shows a woman in a short pink strapless dress." The bag carried an appeal invoking Allah and lamenting "sexually tinted advertising." Also shrouded was "another poster showing a woman in a bikini in the distance walking on a beach."
In Denmark, people depicted on ads need not be skimpily attired to enrage Islamists; they merely have to be participating in democracy. "The election posters of several Muslim MP candidates were painted over with Islamist slogans in various districts and suburbs of Copenhagen," according to a news item from 2011. The not-so-subtle warnings: "Legislation belongs to Allah. Democracy is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy in hell." Politicians fingered members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global Islamist group that seeks the establishment of a Shari'a-run caliphate.
Islamists also have adapted to the information age, recognizing that much of the Western speech they despise now exists online. Al-Azhar University scholars, representatives of the highest religious authority in the Sunni Muslim world, even crafted a fatwa in 2008 that sanctions hacking for the purposes of jihad. Therefore, those who criticize Islam or otherwise offend its followers often find that their freedom of expression is no safer on the internet than it is on a Tower Hamlets billboard.
Arab News sympathetically profiled one such hacker, a Saudi native, in 2011. "An Alkhobar woman studying in the United States is taking credit for destroying 23 Danish websites that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad," the piece begins, relaying material originally published by an Arabic-language source. "Nouf Rashid told the Arabic newspaper she was hacking into Danish websites having references to cartoons of the Prophet along with other sites that had questionable content in her view," including pornographic ones.
Rashid joins a veritable army of Islamist hackers -- most in Muslim countries, but some in the West -- who target those demonstrating insufficient deference to their faith. Examples abound. Hackers commandeered the website of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo when it ran an issue with Muhammad as the "guest editor" in 2011; the electronic vandals left a message decrying the "disgraceful cartoons using excuses of freedom of speech." A year earlier, others hijacked the site of a newly opened Spanish nightclub called Mecca and posted a video predicting "a great war between Spain and the people of Islam" if it was not renamed. The sites of anti-Islam European politicians, including Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders and recent French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, have been defaced, as has the online home of Swedish Muhammad-as-a-dog artist Lars Vilks. To this day, dedicated anti-jihad websites are regularly disabled.
The most prominent controversies bring collective punishment, as whole populations are forced to suffer for the speech of a few. By February 8, 2006 -- at the height of the uproar over the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons -- more than 900 Danish websites had been hacked to convey warnings about caricatures of Islam's prophet, some incorporating threats of violence. A similar fate befell countless Dutch websites following the 2008 release of Fitna, a short film by Wilders that draws links between Islam and terrorism. Further, in 2011, an Algerian hacker still upset with France's former colonial rule of his nation took control of French Catholic websites.
As much as Western governments work to curtail speech deemed offensive to Muslims -- from putting citizens on trial to bolstering the Organization of Islamic Cooperation's push to prohibit "defamation of religions" -- it is never enough for Islamists, who are not shy about demanding greater and greater conformity with Shari'a, particularly its anti-blasphemy provisions. In fact, misguided efforts to placate Islamists actually fuel their fire and promote do-it-yourself censorship.
When politically correct government officials reflexively smear scrutiny of Islam as racist and bigoted, they paint a target on ads and websites that express Islam-critical views, granting a degree of legitimacy to the desire to silence their messages. Likewise, bowing to Islamists' neuroses about the female body only raises their expectations to be shielded from such images. It is no coincidence that MAAD's drive to cover photos of women commenced soon after the Advertising Standards Authority, the industry's self-regulator, frowned upon underwear ads near mosques. Give an inch and they will take a mile. Capitulation to direct threats is especially problematic. The operators of the aforementioned Mecca nightclub, it should be recalled, did change its name, thereby inspiring every Islamist who dreams of strong-arming Westerners into curbing their own words. Moreover, the sight of high-profile entities caving to pressure creates an atmosphere of intimidation that is exploited by suit-and-tie Islamists, whose soft-spoken accommodation requests provide a seemingly easy path for avoiding short-term pain -- though their long-term objectives are no different than those of the vandals.
Vigilante censorship by Islamists and their allies is a growing challenge -- and America is not immune. The proper response surely must begin with fortitude, not appeasement. Secure those websites that tackle the tough questions about Islamic supremacism, replace each destroyed ad with two more, and insist that governments do their job and protect free speech, the linchpin of liberty. Sergio Redegalli put it best when he explained why he keeps repairing his burqa mural: "I don't believe bullies have the right to stand over people and deny us our freedoms." Larger doses of this resolve are necessary as speech comes under increasing assault, through methods both lawful and unlawful, by Islamists aiming to leave the Western world ignorant of their designs, defenseless against their jihad, and ultimately transformed beyond recognition.