Chicago Tribune: Taxi ads stir controversy: Ads imply leaving Islam is dangerous for women

An outspoken opponent of the so-called ground zero mosque in Manhattan is also taking on Islam in Chicago.

Pamela Geller, leader of a movement called Stop the Islamization of America, asserts that Muslims are increasingly taking over schools, financial institutions and the workplace.

Geller’s latest campaign against “Islamization” has appeared in ads this summer on top of 25 Chicago cabs. Beside pictures of young women who were allegedly killed by their Muslim fathers for refusing an Islamic marriage, dating a non-Muslim or becoming “too Americanized” is the message: “Is your family threatening you?” and the Web address of

Though the placards appear to offer a haven for young women who want to leave Islam, critics contend the signs stoke fear among passengers and passers-by about the way an estimated half of the city’s taxi drivers worship, and seek to suppress the religious liberty on which the nation was founded.

“We’ve tried to build a movement that respects others and to respect ourselves and work for our human rights,” said Fayez Khozindar, chairman of the United Taxi Drivers Community Council, whose membership is mostly Muslim. “This isn’t right.”

The ads and the campaign against building the Park51 mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York show that nearly nine years since radical Muslim hijackers flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, a number of authors and activists have stepped up to tell Americans that they believe Muslims are waging a surreptitious offensive to supplant the U.S. Constitution with Islamic law.

“If you’re devout, you believe in the Shariah,” Geller said. “I don’t believe in the institution of foreign law. I believe in the separation of church and state or mosque and state.”

But many Muslim scholars and civil rights advocates say Geller and other self-proclaimed truth-tellers are malicious activists who have capitalized on the terrorist attacks to create a cottage industry bent on bashing people of goodwill and championing religious freedom for all Americans except Muslims.

John Esposito, a professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, said religious defamation and Islam-bashing have become more acceptable in the U.S. since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“People like Pam Geller have a horrendous record,” he said. “It’s a track record of not distinguishing between forms of religious terrorism and Islam itself.”

The ads sponsored by Geller’s group come during a tumultuous time for Muslim Americans. The proposed mosque has drawn support from President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that has been loudly countered by criticism from much of the national Republican leadership and a few high-profile Democrats. Last week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn came out against the location of the mosque.

Geller said the ads in Chicago are the first in a nationwide campaign to raise Americans’ awareness that honor killings are happening in their own country. She said surveys show that 91 percent of honor killings around the world — and 84 percent of them in the U.S.— are carried out by Muslims.

Esposito said religion has nothing to do with it. Honor killings are a cultural phenomenon, not religious, and they are not endorsed anywhere in the Quran, Islam’s holy book.

“This ongoing jihad watch distorts the primary drivers here,” Esposito said. “Unless you understand where it’s coming from, it will not be addressed correctly. … This should be understood the way we address violence against women. … We offer them as much protection as we can, but we don’t jump to say this simply goes on among a particular religious group.”

The Council on American Islamic Relations is considering legal action regarding the ads. Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR-Chicago, said organizations such as Geller’s are not qualified to lead domestic violence initiatives.

But Rehab suspects that’s not their primary goal. Instead, he said, they are intentionally creating an uncomfortable work environment for Chicago’s cabdrivers.

Geller said the faith of the cabdrivers never crossed her mind.

“I thought about the mobility of the cab,” she said. “The ad is not directed at Muslims. In this particular case, it’s directed at Muslim girls in trouble, living in fear of their lives, struggling to find resources to help.”

But Jeff Feldman, president of Taxi Medallion Management, the company that manages Yellow Cab in Chicago, said drivers have a right to request another cab or remove the sign.

“I can see where moderate Muslim men would be upset by that type of ad,” he said. “It casts a terrible impression over all of Islam.”