A trio of notorious anti-Muslim extremists were behind the provocative “Muhammad art exhibit and cartoon contest” where two gunmen opened fire Sunday in Garland, Texas.
The event, which featured Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders as its keynote speaker, was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), an organization with the stated objective of combating “capitulation to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism” amid all levels of government and the mainstream media. The AFDI is led by president Pamela Geller and vice president Robert Spencer, who’ve been at the forefront of the anti-Islamic fringe for years, and the group has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Anti-Defamation League also noted that Geller and Spencer’s secondary anti-Islam group, Stop Islamization of America, seeks to “rouse public fears about a vast Islamic conspiracy to destroy American values.”
“After the Charlie Hebdo massacre – and after the violent Muhammad cartoon riots a few years ago – there should have been Cartoon Exhibits all over the free world, to show the jihadists and their stealth allies in groups that are doing all they can to intimidate the West into abandoning the freedom of speech) that we will not kowtow to violent intimidation,” Geller wrote in a blog post announcing the event. “But there were no such exhibits. The free world was ready to submit. But we aren’t.”
Matt Duss, who tracked Geller and Spencer for years at the Center for American Progress and now serves as the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told TPM in a phone interview Monday that such antics have made Spencer and Geller somewhat pariahs on the right.
“Even among people here in Washington that promulgate these ridiculous claims about the insidious Muslim menace in America, Spencer and Geller are seen as kind of an embarrassment,” Duss said.
But Spencer and Geller have found success with grassroots-level events like the Mohammad cartoon contest, he pointed out.
“In Garland, theres a large Muslim-American community that’s been building an Islamic center,” Duss explained. “In Geller and Spencer’s telling, Muslim-Americans simply practicing their faith non-violently is part of this mass plot to eventually take over the institutions of the United States.”
Here’s what you need to know about Geller, Spencer and Wilders’ history of anti-Muslim activism.
Pamela Geller, a native of Long Island, NY who came to be arguably the most provocative anti-Muslim activist in the post-9/11 era, worked on the business side at both the New York Daily News and the New York Observer before she began blogging about radical Islam and posting bikini videos on her website, Atlas Shrugs. She told The New York Times that she was turned to blogging in the wake of the terror attacks because she wasn’t familiar with Osama Bin Laden and “felt guilty that I didn’t know who had attacked my country.”
Geller moved from the far-right fringes to the center of national debate in 2010, when she agitated against the construction of Park51, a planned Islamic center near Ground Zero that she dubbed a “Victory Mosque.”
She also garnered headlines in recent years for placing disputed subway and bus ads through the AFDI. The ads declared “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad” and compared Muslims to “savages.” Those ads were banned by transit authorities in both Boston and New York City, although a federal judge in Manhattan ultimately ruled that the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s ban violated AFDI’s free speech rights.
Most recently, the AFDI courted controversy by trying to run an ad reading “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah” on New York City transit. A federal judge last month paved the way for those ads to hit the streets in a ruling that found the ads were protected under the First Amendment.
“There is no evidence that seeing one of these advertisements on the back of a bus would be sufficient to trigger a violent reaction,” U.S. District Judge John Koeltl wrote, as quoted by The Washington Post.
— Pamela Geller (@PamelaGeller) April 21, 2015
While Geller is known as a far-right provocateur, Duss described Spencer as the more “scholarly” of the duo.
“He produces these reports and these papers that cherry-pick little verses from the Quran,” Duss told TPM. “He finds things that Muslim scholars and activists have said in the past and presents them as if they represent mainstream thought within Islam — just to give a kind of scholarly gloss to what Geller is doing.”
Indeed, Spencer’s biography on his blog Jihad Watch touts his academic credentials in religious studies — which Geller lacks — in addition to the numerous books he’s authored. Spencer’s rhetoric is no less bombastic than Geller’s, though.
When the conservative website WND caught up with Spencer before the cartoon contest to ask whether his group could have called attention to free speech without being so provocative, he answered “no.”
“And the reason for that is because this has become the flashpoint for the defense of the freedom of speech,” Spencer told WND. “These cartoons are offensive to Islam, and there is a death penalty for those who blaspheme against Mohammad. The jihadis believe that these cartoons cross the line and those who draw them and publicize them have to be killed.
“If we believe in free speech in a free society, then we have to stand up for the right of people to offend Muslims or even subject Islam to mockery,” he added.
Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, the founder of that country’s far-right Freedom Party, has been in and out of safe houses and under police protection since Dutch police busted an alleged terrorist cell that had been planning to target the polarizing MP and others in 2004.
Wilders’ relationship with Geller and Spencer goes back several years. One of the AFDI’s stated objectives is “supporting Geert Wilders and others who are fighting attacks on free speech by the Leftist/Islamic alliance.” Wilders was also a fixture at the pair’s anti-Park51 rallies, where Geller praised him as a “modern-day Churchill.”
“America, New York and sharia are incompatible,” he declared at the anti-Park51 event.
While Wilders insists that he hates not Muslims but Islam itself, he has referred to Islam as the “ideology of a retarded culture.” He’s also compared Mohammad to Adolf Hitler and the Quran to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” campaigned on banning the Quran in the Netherlands and suggested taxing Muslim women who wear headscarves.
The Dutch MP is currently facing his second hate speech trial for asking his supporters “Do you want more or fewer Moroccans in this city and in the Netherlands?” during a rally last March at The Hague. When the crowd shouted that they’d prefer fewer Moroccans, Wilders assured them “We’ll take care of that.” A judge previously threw out racial hatred charges against Wilders for making the Quran-Mein Kampf comparison on the grounds that his statements were directed at a religion and not a particular group.
All images via YouTube and the Associated Press.