Orientalism on the Tracks

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The advertising campaigns on San Francisco public buses and New York City subways sponsored by Pamela Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative garnered a lot of attention in the fall of 2012. Public officials and various organizations offered sweeping condemnation. The campaign’s creators and supporters offered defenses (including sometimes physically protecting the ads). There were several documented acts of courageous adbusting.[i] Most of the circulating discourse focused on two issues: the first amendment rights of Pamela Geller to place the ads, and the patently racist and Islamophobic nature of them:

first image J&C

While we take no issue with the focus on these important issues of first amendment freedoms and attacking racist speech, and while there has been some activity that speaks to both,[ii] we wish to locate the ads in broader currents of acceptable Islamophobic and racist politics. That is, we contend that the framing of the issue as either a matter of free speech, or a matter of exceptional racism that requires official or activist censorship, has obfuscated larger—if more subtle—flows of colonial logic. Once acknowledged, those colonial logics and practices—which we suggest are prevalent—should be seen as producing the more explicit virulence contained in the ad campaign. Below, we dissect the advertisement and place it within the broader politics of occupation and colonization.

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The first lines immediately locate the ad in well-documented and explicit colonial imaginaries. In juxtaposing a “civilized man” and a “savage,” the ad positions a human—a man—against a beast. This is an obvious Orientalist trope that at once (de)humanizes and genders this already racialized construct (Said, 1978).[iii] The word savage, of course, has been used to justify brutal colonial violence in the Americas against First Nations and in myriad colonial projects abroad. The ‘civilized man,’ in contrast, clearly invokes a historically structured image of patriarchal and colonial whiteness. Read in its entirety, Pamela Geller’s ad positions an enlightened and civilized Israel against a “Savage” Palestine bent on “Jihad.” In its animation of Orientalist tropes to invite continued colonial violence, the advertisement erases the well-documented destruction of historic Palestine, obscures the secular-nationalist and non-violent nature of much resistance to occupation, and misunderstands the definition of jihad.

While the advertisement deserves critical scrutiny, an individualized focus on one piece of propaganda and on Geller, can locate both squarely in the camp of the ‘bad apple’ theory: the ad is an aberration sponsored by a fringe right wing racist. We believe such a conclusion to be intellectually suspect and politically myopic. Instead, we see the ad as an unusually explicit expression of a latent, yet a very mainstream and no less racist, view point. In other words, we contend that the ad campaign can actually be located within, rather than abstracted out of, the larger context of Zionist, Islamophobic, and anti-Arab discourse and politics.

Indeed, two contemporary developments illustrate the close proximity between Geller’s ad and the universe of acceptable political practices. First, as the Associated Press has reported, the NYPD has engaged in a patently racist campaign against Muslims in New York City, secretly labeling entire mosques as terrorist entities and justifying infiltration, surveillance, and recording of sermons.[iv] In addition, as we write, the Israeli government is simultaneously engaged in peace talks and settlement expansion in east Jerusalem. When colonization and ethnic cleansing can happen so baldly and, in true Orwellian fashion, receive tacit endorsement as a necessary accommodation in the pursuit of peace negotiations, it shouldn’t be surprising that virulently racist provocations toward colonial violence occur. The latter are simply extensions of the former.

A recent UNWRA report predicts that the Gaza Strip will be unlivable by the year 2020 due to the scarcity of water, hospitals, schools and other resources, largely due to Israel’s blockade.[v] In the West Bank, Israel continues to build settlements, expand the wall, and expropriate land. All of this occurs while American politicians of both parties compete for who can perform the greatest rhetorical genuflections to appeal to Israel and complain about having ‘no partner for peace’. In this greater context, we contend that the ad campaign is distinct in its explicit invocation of racist and colonialist tropes but unexceptional in its message and larger political ambitions.

Judah Schept, PhD
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

Carl Root
University of South Florida


[i] Indeed, the rapid response of New Yorkers to deface the ad in a number of poignant and beautiful ways speaks both to the degree of resistance to the filth and to the walls as contested cultural spaces. See: http://www.animalnewyork.com/2012/the-islamophobic-subway-ads-have-already-been-vandalized/ and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/24/mysubwayad-muslims-respond-to-anti-islamic-subway-ads_n_1910652.html

[ii] See for example, journalist Mona Eltahawy here spray painting over the add while saying that it was in fact her own first amendment right do so: http://gawker.com/5946535/journalist-mona-eltahawy-arrested-in-new-york-for-spray-painting-over-pamela-gellers-racist-subway-poster),

[iii] Said (1978) notes that the Orient was a “geographical space to be cultivated, harvested and guarded…The point here is that the space of weaker or underdeveloped regions like the Orient was viewed as something inviting French interest, penetration, insemination—in short, colonization” (219).


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