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Ads posted in New York subways test limits of free speech

Cyrus McGoldrick, a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, talks to commuters as they walk by an advertisement that reads "Support Israel/Defeat Jihad" in the Times Square subway station in New York, September 24, 2012.

BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS

Pro-Israeli posters that verge on calling Muslims uncivilized savages now adorn New York's busy Times Square and Grand Central subway stations, in another incendiary test of the limits of free speech following Muslim protests around the world over a U.S.-made film depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizing child abuser.

"In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man," say the large, boldly lettered wall posters sponsored by a group calling itself the American Freedom Defense Initiative. They add: "Support Israel/Defeat Jihad."

AFDI describes itself as a human-rights organization but has been dubbed a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks radical organizations.

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New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority reluctantly complied with a court order to post the advertisements on Monday, after losing a year-long legal battle. The ads are now on the walls in 10 of the city's nearly 500 subway stations.

"Our hands are tied," said Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesman. The ads had initially been rejected under the MTA's prohibition on messages that "demean people on the basis of their race, sex, religion, national origin or other group classification," but the court ruled those restrictions violated the First Amendment free-speech guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.

Pamela Geller, a prominent pro-Israeli activist who said she is the executive director of AFDI, stridently defended the message and gave an expansive definition of her use of the word "savage."

"The endless demonization of the Jewish people in the Palestinian and Arab media is savage," she said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "The refusal to recognize the state of Israel as a Jewish state is savage. The list is endless."

Reactions varied among passers-by. "Where is the protection of religion in America?" asked Javerea Khan, 22, a Pakistani-born Muslim. "The word 'savage' really bothers the Muslim community," she said. Mel Moore, a 29-year-old sports agent, told Reuters: "It's not right, but it's freedom of speech."

In her spirited defence of the posters' message on her blog, AtlasShrugs2000, Ms. Geller said the furor surrounding the ads exposed the violent tendencies of anti-Israeli groups.

She said at least one of her posters had already been defaced, less than a day after it was put up. "Hundreds and hundreds of anti-Israel posters ran all over the country," she wrote, without explaining further what posters she meant. "Not one was defaced. One anti-jihad poster goes up, and it's defaced within an hour, while its creator faces defamation, smears and libel."

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The MTA, meanwhile, said it has asked the AFDI for extra supplies of the posters so it can replace those defaced or torn off.

Ms. Geller insisted the ads didn't attack all Muslims, only those extremists who advocate violence. For Muslims, though, the Arabic word "jihad" means the act of struggling or striving on behalf of God; it's a holy duty, one that can mean simply striving for self-improvement, that believers cannot reject or ignore. The use of jihad to mean holy or just war – akin to crusade for Christians – is widely regarded as only one element of struggle.

Ms. Geller previously gained notoriety for her campaign against the building of the so-called Ground Zero mosque close to the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. She is "the anti-Muslim movement's most visible and flamboyant figurehead," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Ms. Geller said the ads cost $6,000 and will remain for one month, and that she plans a similar ad campaign in the Washington, D.C. subway.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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