Her sensitivity to those who she believes would conflate Islam with Islamists inspired her to take an action last year that received worldwide attention. The spark was a poster put up around New York City subway stations by a right-wing pro-Israel group. The poster attacked jihadists and labeled them “savages.”
“Did you wake up one morning and read about this?” I asked her.
“And snapped,” she said. “What really upset me was that this campaign was for me the latest example of an attempt to bully Muslims. Ever since 9/11 Muslims in this country who had nothing to do with 9/11 because the guys who took part in that came from other countries—none of them was an American Muslim. But we’ve been paying the price for it ever since.”
We talk about the disturbed woman who pushed a Hindu man in front of a subway killing him because she thought he was Muslim or Hindu and they all should be blamed for 9/11. Weirdly both Mona and I knew the unfortunate victim. “Sen!” she said. He worked in a copy shop I used. It was shocking to learn someone you knew as a gentle soul had been struck by a lightning bolt of mad hatred.
The posters also made her frustrated with social media. “I felt I hit the wall with it,” she says, because it was all atwitter about the outrage, but nothing was being done. She felt she had to take direct action—take the fight to the streets. She went out, got some spray paint, and started painting over posters.
But she didn’t black out the posters—she used pink spray paint. “People have accused me of trying to shut down speech. But I chose pink for a reason, Ron: because it was see-through. And I wanted people to see the words underneath. I considered this nonviolent civil disobedience. I love the First Amendment. I believe in the right to offend. I received my first death threat after I defended the Danish cartoons against the prophet. [Back in 2005 a Danish newspaper published a series of images of Muhammad, considered blasphemy to most orthodox Muslims.] I considered the ads hate speech.”
Eltahawy was arrested for the act. She was eventually offered a plea bargain to a minor violation but refused the deal and demanded a trial, which has yet to take place.
Ever the optimist, she is convinced she’ll win: “If a judge in New York considers hate speech [the posters] political speech then my protest of hate speech should also be protected political speech.”
While she’s been attacked for the poster action, she’s an equal opportunity offender—she’s also been attacked for making one of the most important, and courageous, statements about the vexed Israel question I’ve come across from an Islamic activist: She called the Arab world’s preoccupation with the Israel-Palestine problem “the opium of the Arabs.”
Yes, she supports the Palestinian position (she’s been attacked for tweeting support of the hunger strike of a jailed jihadist in Israel) but, she says, “getting rid of this opium would involve disenabling our regimes from using Israel as a distraction from their own crimes against us.”