TAMPA — Ads on Hillsborough Area Regional Transit buses promoting diversity by a group that seeks to improve American and Islamic relations have spurred a response from a group that promises "refuge from Islam."
The American Freedom Defense Initiative has won approval to purchase ad space on county buses denouncing "honor" killings, the practice of killing a family member, typically a woman, who has brought shame to the household. The ad shows images of seven girls who supposedly were victims of such killings.
"Is your family threatening you? Is your life in danger?" the ad asks, before offering help through a website.
The website home page has the words "refuge from Islam" splashed across the top and warns those thinking of leaving Islam not to tell their family. It says they may not be safe, even if they live in the United States.
It also offers reading material and contacts for Muslims seeking to make an escape from their faith, including the email address of the group's founder, anti-Islam crusader Pamela Geller. It does not mention that honor killings take place across the world, and span many faiths and cultures.
The AFDI submitted eight prospective ads to HART, but all but the one were rejected. Most of the others sought to characterize its nemesis, the Council of American-Islamic Relations, as either linked to terrorists or having harmed people who turned to it for help in discrimination claims.
"Seven of them violated our guidelines in that they demeaned or disparaged an individual or group," David Smith, general counsel to HART, said Monday. "The ad that we've agreed to run doesn't do that."
The AFDI has run similar advertising campaigns in other cities' transit systems, from New York to Boston and San Francisco. It has aggressively sued in instances in which ad space was denied, generally prevailing on First Amendment grounds.
Attempts to reach the AFDI's Geller were unsuccessful Monday evening. The group forecast its plans on one of its blogs in September, in a post that also ran on the conservative news and opinion site Breitbart.com.
In the post, Geller makes clear that her group turned its attention to Tampa in direct response to the CAIR ad campaign, linking the organization to the terrorist group Hamas and suggesting it is a front for the Muslim Brotherhood. CAIR is not the civil rights group it claims to be, she said.
"So my human rights organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), is launching our own public service bus ad campaign in Tampa to offer help for girls in danger of honor killing and to (sic) truth about Hamas-CAIR," Geller wrote.
Hassan Shibly, executive director for CAIR-Florida, said he was hesitant to say anything that would draw attention to a group and message that he says promotes hatred and xenophobia. But he said he welcomes people looking at both groups, their websites and what they emphasize, and decide for themselves whose message they embrace.
"I think that in the marketplace of ideas, let the people judge for themselves whether or not they want to side with those who are promoting fear and hatred, or those that are promoting tolerance and unity and understanding," Shibly said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.