The words were written in foot-high block print: beware the muslims are coming! And below, in smaller font: “And they shall strike with hugs so fierce, you’ll end up calling your grandmother and telling her you love her.”
The advertisement was to appear in New York City subway stations and trains. Delighted to learn of the relatively low price to advertise with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), comics Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah raised $20,000 in November 2014 to spend on different versions of this ad, one of which suggested that the “ugly truth” about Muslims was that they have good frittata recipes. The campaign was intended to promote the Netflix run of their documentary The Muslims Are Coming, which followed a troupe of Muslim-American comedians as they toured the heartland of America performing shows meant to counter the negative stereotypes about Islam.
But in April 2015, shortly before the ads were to go up, the MTA board passed a policy banning any ad that is “political in nature” from its system. Under the ban, ads cannot express or promote an opinion on a host of topics, including “disputed economic, political, moral, religious or social issues.”
The MTA told Farsad and Obeidallah that this meant that the Muslims Are Coming ads—approved after months of exchanges between the MTA; its advertising agency, Outfront Media; and the comedians—were no longer allowed. Farsad and Obeidallah countered that the message of their campaign was apolitical, asserting simply that Muslims are “normal.” Incensed, they sued the agency and won.
“Us being banned was totally out of left field,” says Farsad, a petite woman in red-framed glasses, a cherry-red trench coat, and red tights, speaking during an interview at a sun-drenched East Village coffee shop. “Because we’d been working with the MTA for five months. It had been approved. We were so heavily scrutinized.”
The board’s decision to ban political ads came in the wake of a number of high-profile legal battles pitting the transit agency against free-speech groups. With Islamophobia climbing to a fever pitch in recent years, the MTA has faced a notable uptick of ads disparaging Muslims. The agency has historically allowed all manner of speech, no matter how provocative, but in 2012 and again in 2015, it rejected Islamophobic ads from the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a prominent anti-Islam group headed by right-wing blogger Pamela Geller. Some at the agency worried that these ads—one of which called Muslims “savages” and another of which accused them of “killing Jews” to get “closer to Allah”—could incite violence. The AFDI sued on free-speech grounds and won both times.