New York subway pusher to Owaisi: The dotted line of hate

The children’s rhyme goes “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

Except when they just might.

There’s a debate going on in the US about whether you can draw a dotted line between the woman who pushed Sunando Sen into the path of an oncoming train because she hated Muslims and Hindus and the anti-Islam posters, protected by America’s First Amendment, that have cropped up in the New York subway system.

How’s this for a dotted line? The latest crop of posters  from the American Freedom Defense Initiative run by Pam Geller show the burning Twin Towers with a quote attributed to the Quran that says “Soon we shall  cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers.”

Erika Menendez, the woman who fatally pushed Sunando Sen onto the tracks told the police “I’ve hated Hindus and Muslims since 2001, since they put down the Twin Towers. I have been beating them up since.”

Of course, the most recent set of ads were not yet up by the time Menendez made her fatal shove.

Representative image. Reuters.

However Annie Robbins and Alex Kane of Mondoweiss write “Geller’s role in promoting anti-Muslim sentiment of the sort that leads to Islamphobic hate crimes should not be in dispute.” The argument there is that while most commuters on New York’s subway might look at the ads as a particularly noxious exercise in freedom of speech, they might easily become the trigger that an already mentally unstable violent person like Erika Menendez needs.

The debate is interesting because ultimately there are few tests as tricky for a liberal society as the ones that try to map the acceptable contours of hate.

How much hate are we willing to tolerate before we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Amardeep Singh who has spoken out strongly about hate crimes cautions against jumping onto the hate crimes bandwagon in the Sunando Sen case. In his blog Electrostani, Singh writes that screaming hate crime ignores Menendez's long history of violence and mental instability. Sunando Sen was not the first person she attacked. In 2003, according to the New York Times she attacked a retired firefighter who was just taking out his garbage. Thousands of people like Menendez fall through the cracks of the mental health system that has no way to monitor if they are taking their meds.

It’s tempting for community advocates to want to slap hate crime charges onto this case because she is on record as saying she hated Hindus and Muslims. But that labeling “also weakens and cheapens the real problem of violence motivated by hatred of religious and racial minorities,” writes Singh. “It gives the appearance that community advocates may be overplaying their hands, which just a few months after the ghastly shooting at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, they surely do not need to do.”

The American Freedom Defense Initiative stoutly denies it is stoking violence but it has certainly been pushing the envelope as far it can. When the subway authorities balked at earlier ads that seemed to equate Muslims with “savages”, it went to court. And it won.

However the reaction to its court victory is also instructive. The Metropolitan Transit Authority abided by the court decision but decided to tighten its rules for ads, rules that had not been touched in 15 years. It also forced Geller’s group to  clearly show their name on the ads as its sponsor.

Groups like the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) instead of trying to push for the ads to be taken down are trying to respond in kind. For example, in San Francisco and Chicago there is the MyJihad bus campaign. Those ads show attractive young men and women with slogans like “#My Jihad is to build friendships across the aisle. What’s yours?” Or a woman with glasses in a shocking pink dress and a headscarf squeezing a dumbbell next to a caption that reads “#MyJihad is to stay fit despite my busy schedule. What’s yours?” Ahmed Rehad, who heads the Chicago chapter of CAIR said that the ads were trying a reclaim a word that had been hijacked “more or less by two extremes -  Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim extremists."

Watching this debate for afar it’s impossible not to rue how we cannot even get close to a debate like this in India because for us the freedom to get offended tends to trump the freedom of expression. Whether it’s a movie or a book or a painting or actual hate speech, the gut reaction is to ban it first and argue later, unless of course the speaker is a politician with a real constituency. Musing about the possibility of ever revoking the ban on The Satanic Verses, writer Salil Tripathi, author of Offence:The Hindu Case said in an interview “My fear is as soon as the case is heard in court, someone will bring out a large demonstration in front of the court, they will burn a few cars and buses and the government will use the excuse that even conversation about the book is leading to so much trouble.”

The nanny state's apron strings are stronger than ever. “If the state does not want to be a nanny, others want it to become a nanny state to make sure what they don’t like doesn’t come out into the public domain,” said Tripathi. And the nanny state just feeds on itself. So one side will want  Owaisi arrested for his hate speech. The other side will say why not Praveen Togadia for his inflammatory statements.

This endless loop of allegation of double standards hides the more disturbing issue writes Mahtab Alam in Countercurrents.

Togadia is not a solitary soldier: there is a veritable contingent of Togadias whose prime work is hate mongering and inciting violence, especially in situations where there are higher chances of communal disturbance and violence.

Replace Togadia with Owaisi or Pam Geller for that matter and the statement unfortunately rings just as true. And ordinary people like Sunando Sen and Balbir Singh Sodhi pay the price.