(Reuters) - The Washington transit system on Thursday suspended all “issue-oriented” advertising after being asked to run a subway ad featuring a cartoon depiction of the Prophet Mohammad.
The ban, approved unanimously by the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, prohibits political, religious and advocacy ads through the end of the year, a spokesman said.
The transit system had been asked by the American Freedom Defense Initiative to display the cartoon that won first prize at an event in Texas this month at which two gunmen opened fire near the venue and wounded a security guard before they were shot and killed by police.
The ad, which calls for Americans to support free speech, features a bearded, turban-wearing Mohammad waving a sword and shouting: “You can’t draw me!”
In reply, a cartoon bubble portrays an artist grasping a pencil and saying: “That’s why I draw you.”
All visual depictions of the prophet of Islam are considered sacrilegious by many Muslims.
Pamela Geller, founder of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, described the cartoon as “political opinion.”
“There is nothing violent in that cartoon,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “If there is a group you cannot criticize ... it’s the tyranny of that group.”
The Washington decision follows a vote in April by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority to ban all political ads after losing a court battle with the group over an ad that read: “Hamas Kills Jews.”
The group, which is on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual list of U.S. hate groups, has run controversial ads on subways and buses in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, and it ran an ad on Washington’s Metro in 2012.
The cartoon ad did not come up during the board meeting on Thursday when the vote was taken, according to spokesman Dan Stessel.
Nihad Awad, head of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative were trying to turn the public against American Muslims.
“They are using their free speech to propagate misconception and to divide people along ethnic or religious lines,” he said. “It is up to the Metro authorities to deal with these hateful groups.”
Reporting by Jennifer Atkinson and Ellen Wulfhorst in New York; Editing by Mohammad Zargham