The transit system in the nation’s capital on Thursday (May 28) suspended all “issue-oriented” advertisements after getting a request to allow a Metro subway ad featuring a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad.
The ban, approved unanimously by the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), prohibits political, religious and advocacy ads through the end of the year.
The WMATA had been asked by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) to run the cartoon, which won first prize at an event in Texas this month that was attacked by two gunmen.
The ad, which calls for Americans to support free speech, features a bearded, turban-wearing Mohammad waving a sword and shouting: “You can’t draw me!”
In reply, a cartoon bubble portrays an artist grasping a pencil and saying: “That’s why I draw you.”
Depictions of the prophet of Islam are considered offensive by many Muslims.
AFDI founder Pamela Geller, in an interview on Thursday, described the cartoon as “political opinion”.
“We believe the American people need to see the political, academic and cultural elites are censoring, are scrubbing, are whitewashing. I don’t think the American people are relinquishing their freedoms as readily as the media would have us relinquish our freedoms. That cartoon is political opinion. That cartoon is standing up against the violent intimidation and thuggery of jihadists. There is nothing violent in that cartoon,” she said.
AFDI, which is on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual list of U.S. hate groups, has run controversial ads on subways and buses in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco and it ran an ad on Washington, D.C.’s Metro in 2012.
The specific ad did not come up during the WMATA board meeting on Thursday when the vote was taken, according to spokesman Dan Stessel.
Nihad Awad, head of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said he thinks Geller and the AFDI were trying to turn the public against American Muslims.
“They are using their free speech to propagate misconception and to divide people along ethnic or religious lines,” he said.
“It is up to the Metro authorities to deal with these hateful groups.”
On May 3, the cartoon won the top prize at AFDI’s “Drawing Mohammad” event in Garland, Texas, before two men armed with assault rifles wounded a security guard in the parking lot.
Police shot and killed the two gunmen.
In Washington D.C. on Thursday, commuters had strong opinions about the possibility of such ads being placed on trains or buses.
“I’m pretty surprised actually that it’s even being considered as an option. It’s obviously caused a lot of controversy and I think would do the same here, and so I’m a little upset that it’s even, you know, being considered,” said commuter Zenia Zelechiwsky.
“Disgusting. I don’t want to be subjected to that non-entity quite frankly. They shouldn’t subject us to that. If somebody wants to be a cheerleader or a drama queen they can go do that in their privacy. You know, they don’t want to bring it out in the open here,” said Kez Gabriel.
Metro rider Ron Nicholas said, “There’s been many arguments about freedom of speech, you know. Because the same thing as… think about what has been said about hollering ‘Fire’ in a theater. You don’t do it. You know? Why create a problem where there is no problem?”
New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority voted to ban all political ads in April after it lost a court battle with the group over an ad that read: “Hamas Kills Jews.”