The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) which sponsored the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Texas is no stranger to the media spotlight.
For years before the attack on the Texas event Sunday by two men with assault rifles, AFDI president and cofounder Pamela Geller has been making headlines for expressing staunch, and often controversial, opposition to Islam.
Her supporters say she speaks the truth about a topic people are too fearful to address, but her critics call her a bigot.
“We've been concerned about Pamela Geller for several years,” said Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a group dedicated to stopping "the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all," according to its website.
“Primarily because she is one of the leading American anti-Muslim bigots, consistently vilifying Muslims and the Islamic faith under the guise, of course, of fighting radical Islamists,” Segal said. “They preach that Islam is inherently evil and she has said that she prefers that immigration from Muslim countries is limited.”
Geller fired back at the bigotry accusation in a comment to VOA.
“It is not bigotry to stand up for the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression against those who would violently suppress it,” she wrote in an email. “The ADL apparently prefers submission in the face of violent threats to standing up for the liberty and dignity of the individual. And as the ADL chooses slavery, it will get slavery.”
Segal said one of the most dangerous aspects of Geller’s rhetoric is that she conflates Islamic extremists with all Muslims.
Commenting on the Texas shooting on her blog, Geller wrote: “It’s not just the Islamic State — it’s your everyday, run of the mill moderates praising mind-numbing savagery.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that challenges negative depictions of Muslims and Islam, said in a statement “We also reiterate our view that violence in response to anti-Islam programs like the one in Garland, Texas, is more insulting to our faith than any cartoon, however defamatory. Bigoted speech can never be an excuse for violence."
The ADL is not alone in condemning Geller.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society,” lists Geller in their “extremists files,” calling her “the anti-Muslim movement's most visible and flamboyant figurehead.”
And her influence is widespread, Segal said.
He pointed to Anders Behring Breivik, the man who killed over 70 people in a 2011 shooting spree in Norway as someone influenced by Geller’s views. In his manifesto, Breivik praised Geller, writing "there are no important theological differences between jihadists and so-called 'peaceful' or 'moderate' Muslims."
Geller has a knack for getting media attention.
In 2010, AFDI, which also calls itself Stop the Islamization of America, campaigned against a proposed Islamic community center near the site of the World Trade Centers in lower Manhattan, dubbing it the “Ground Zero Mosque.” The center was never built.
Geller and her associated groups have also sparked debate with provocative advertising on public transportation systems, including New York and Washington. One such ad read “In a war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Another read "It’s Not Islamophobia ... It’s Islamorealism."
While critics call Sunday’s Garland, Texas, event “provocative,” Geller defended it on her blog.
“This incident shows how much needed our event really was,” she wrote. “The freedom of speech is under violent assault here in our nation. The question now before is — will we stand and defend it, or bow to violence, thuggery, and savagery?”
Geller defended her views, too, on Monday morning during a television interview with CNN.
“Increasingly we are abridging our freedoms so as not to offend savages,” she said. “The very idea that is something offends me, or I’m insulted by something, I’ll kill you, and that way I can get my way, and somehow this is OK with members of the elite media and academia, is outrageous. It’s a cartoon. It’s a cartoon.”
Segal, while critical of the Texas event, condemned the violence.
“As abhorrent as we find her views and as divisive as the event that she held was clearly meant to be, nothing – obviously – sanctions the type of violence that we saw,” he said.