(CNSNews.com) – A public transit authority in Florida has reversed a decision to take down banner advertisements on buses that offer help to Muslims wanting to leave their faith. Activists are hailing the move as a victory for free speech and religious freedom.
Not only will the ten originally planned ads appear on Miami-Dade Transit buses in coming days, but an additional 20 ads will be run at no extra cost.
The decision came after the group initiating the ad campaign threatened a lawsuit, claiming breach of contract and violation of First Amendment rights.
It was confirmed in an agreement signed on Wednesday, according to lawyer David Yerushalmi, whose firm prepared a federal complaint together with the Thomas More Law Center.
The bus company pulled the ads last week less than 48 hours after they had gone up, after a controversial Islamic pressure group complained that they promoted “anti-Islam bigotry.”
Produced by an organization called Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), the ads alluded to the difficulties faced by Muslims wanting to leave Islam.
Under Islamic law, or shari’a, any Muslim who abandons his faith is guilty of apostasy, an offense that leading scholars have taught is punishable by death.
“Fatwa on your head?” the ads’ tagline read. “Is your community or family threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got questions? Get answers!” The ads also give the URL of a Web site offering resources for people who have abandoned Islam or are thinking about doing so.
Their appearance triggered protests from the South Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Its director, Muhammed Malik, said the issue of apostasy was being used as “a smoke-screen to promote anti-Islam bigotry and attempt to marginalize American Muslims.”
Following the CAIR complaints, a Miami-Dade Transit spokeswoman told Florida media that the authority decided to remove the ads after reviewing them and determining that they might be offensive. An outside company, CBS Outdoor, had sold the ad space and the ads had not been routinely reviewed at the outset.
Yerushalmi said he had been ready to go to federal court this week to apply for a temporary restraining order, but that during a teleconference with the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s office, “the county attorneys conceded the ads should not have been pulled.”
The lawyer then negotiated a retraction of the earlier contract termination with CBS Outdoor. “The ads are expected to go back up by early next week.”
Miami-Dade Transit did not respond to queries Wednesday.
The driving forces behind SIOA and a related group, the Freedom Defense Initiative, are Pamela Geller of the Atlas Shrugs Web site, and Jihad Watch director and author Robert Spencer.
When they launched the campaign last week, Geller and Spencer said it marked “the first time anyone has offered public help to those who are threatened under Islam’s apostasy law. In the Land of the Free, government and law enforcement should be on this. But they aren’t. So we are. It is time for free citizens to stand for freedom – or lose it.”
SIOA has cited cases like that of Rifqa Bary, the teenage girl of Sri Lankan origin who converted to Christianity from Islam and then fled from her Ohio home to Florida last year, claiming in an affidavit that her father had threatened to kill her because of her conversion.
SIOA says the “Leaving Islam” campaign was in part a reaction to a dawah (invitation to Islam) drive launched in late 2008, supported by CAIR and other Muslim groups.
For months, banners ran on buses in several parts of the country – including Florida’s Dade and Broward counties – describing Islam as “The way of life of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, & Muhammad” (in line with the Islamic precept that all major biblical figures were Muslim prophets.)
The dawah ads directed inquiring non-Muslims to a toll-free phone number and to a Web site where they were invited to convert to Islam. This site also offers welcome packages, a mentoring system, classes and conferences.
After Miami-Dade Transit pulled the “Leaving Islam” ads, Geller wrote, “So Muslims can run bus ads all across America inviting the clueless to convert to Islam, but we cannot make information available to Muslims who want to leave Islam. Still think this is a free country?”
On Wednesday, Spencer called the bus company’s reversal “a major victory for the freedom of speech and a disastrous defeat for the thuggish Islamic supremacists of CAIR.”
CAIR did not respond Wednesday to queries sent to its South Florida chapter office and to Malik’s personal email address.
The organization describes itself as “America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.” In 2007 federal prosecutors named it on a list of “unindicted co-conspirators” in a criminal conspiracy by the Holy Land Foundation to finance terrorism. (Five former Holy Land organizers were convicted the following year of providing support to Hamas.)
‘No compulsion’ vs. ‘Kill him’
Apostasy is a contentious issue in Islam. Although the Koran says “there is no compulsion in religion” (sura 2:256), the Islamic canonical tradition called the Hadith contains references to execution for apostasy.
In one Hadith (the Sahih al-Bukhari) Mohammed commands, “Any [Muslim] person who has changed his religion, kill him,” and in another (Imam Malik’s Muwatta) Mohammed specifies that the form of execution should be beheading.
CAIR’s stated position on the subject, outlined in a statement last year, is that “faith imposed by force is not true belief, but coercion.”
The statement included several Koranic references to back up that assertion, including the “no compulsion in religion” one, but said nothing about the various Hadith relating to death for apostasy.
Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Mauritania are some of the countries where people have been formally accused or found guilty of apostasy.
Apostasy laws typically give an accused person three days to reflect before being condemned. “If he does not repent within this time limit, he is to be condemned to death as an apostate and his property will be confiscated by the Treasury,” states Mauritania’s criminal code.
In Afghanistan, a Christian convert named Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death in 2006 for apostasy, but after the U.S. and other Western countries with military forces deployed there put pressure on the Karzai administration, he was freed and allowed to seek asylum abroad.
Even in countries where conversions are not punishable by law, apostates often face hostility or violence at the hands of relatives, communities or Islamist radicals. The Barnabas Fund, a British-based charity working among Christian minorities in the Islamic world, says Muslims who change religions often face “a lifetime of fear.”