A bus-ad campaign that seeks to offer resources to those considering leaving Islam already has stirred up controversy in Miami and New York, but its next city may create the most fireworks - Detroit, the U.S. metropolitan area with the heaviest concentration of Middle Easterners.
The Detroit-area bus authority has refused to run the ads from Stop Islamization of America, an organization headed up by conservative activist and anti-jihad blogger Pamela Geller, prompting SIOA to file a federal lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
Mrs. Geller said the transport authority’s refusal to run her ads violates her First Amendment right of free speech, and she will take the lawsuit to the Supreme Court if necessary.
“It is against the law, and I tell you, those ads will go up whether they like it or not,” Mrs. Geller said.
SIOA initially encountered a similar refusal in Miami, but Mrs. Geller said a lawsuit prompted the transport-authority there to relent in less than 24 hours.
Several calls to the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, which operates the bus system serving Detroit and two surrounding counties, were not returned Thursday.
Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Michigan, said he expects that even if the ads do run in Detroit, they will not elicit any response besides puzzlement. The Detroit area, centering on Dearborn, is home to a quarter-million Muslims, whom Mr. Walid does not expect to react favorably to the presence of SIOA’s ads in their city.
“If she’s planning to put those Islamophobic ads in Detroit, she’s wasting her time,” Mr. Walid said.
The Detroit area also has a large Arab and Middle Eastern Christian population, centering on suburbs north of the city proper.
Mrs. Geller said SIOA began its national city-by-city ad campaign in response to bus ads in Florida inviting people to convert to Islam.
The SIOA ads read, “Fatwah on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got Questions? Get answers!” and provides a Web address that links to organizations that serve Muslim apostates. The bus ads are running in Miami through June 15 and began running in New York last week and will run through late June, Mrs. Geller said.
Part of the conflict centers on whether Muslims are free to leave Islam without retribution, and whether their families will punish or kill them for conversion.
One such case that has made national headlines in the U.S. involves 17-year-old Rifqa Bary, who fled her parents’ Ohio home to stay with a Florida Christian minister after she converted. In the ensuing custody and foster care disputes, her Muslim parents deny that the girl will be harmed if she returns home.
Abdul Rahman, an Afghan citizen, was arrested in 2006 for converting to Christianity there, and members of his family asked prosecutors to seek the death penalty. But the international outcry over Mr. Rahman’s case, and the fact that the Afghan government was installed by the U.S. invasion - plus doubts about the case and Mr. Rahman’s sanity - combined to prompt the court to release him.
The consensus view among Muslim jurists worldwide is that apostasy, unless mitigated by such factors as mental illness or duress, is punishable by death. Mrs. Geller cited a fatwa, or ruling point on Islamic law, issued by the authoritative Al-Azhar University in 1978, that said: “This man has committed apostasy; he must be given a chance to repent, and if he does not, then he must be killed, according to Shariah [law].”
Mr. Walid denied Mrs. Geller’s claims, though he provided no authoritative citations, and attacked Mrs. Geller’s character.
“She’s a well-known anti-Muslim bigot,” he said. “She makes no distinction between extremist Muslims and mainstream Muslims.”
Mr. Walid said that although there have been a few cases of violence against Muslims who convert away from the religion, there is no retribution for those who choose to leave Islam.
“People are free to leave Islam or any religion at any time. This is the United States of America,” he said.
But a public educator in Dearborn, speaking on the condition of anonymity owing to fear of retribution, said there is a climate of fear in the Detroit area’s Muslim community.
“The fear is palpable. I know there are things I am ‘not allowed’ to say. A discussion of religion with a Muslim person is often prefaced by the statement, ‘Dont say anything about the Prophet [Muhammad].’ In free society, open and honest conversation is not usually begun by a prohibition. Threats and intimidation are just part of life here.”
CAIR’s denial of the dangers of apostasy are part of the reason behind Mrs. Geller’s campaign, which she defined as a religious-freedom issue.
“We’re not encouraging people to leave Islam,” she said.
Whether or not the ads actually encourage apostasy, the furor elsewhere already have received a considerable amount of negative attention from American Muslims.
“The ads are to serve a purpose - to incite Islamophobia,” Mr. Walid said. “The average person here will see them for what they are.”
The Dearborn educator, however, said the ads serve a positive purpose.
“This kind of campaign and Americans support of it could assure these frightened Muslims that they have the rights that every other American has, that they will be protected, not abandoned or exposed to their leaders should they act upon their desire to be free,” the teacher said.