Pamela Geller, the woman behind the Texas cartoon contest attacked by two gunmen late Sunday, knew what she was doing when she staged the controversial event featuring irreverent depictions of the prophet Muhammad in Garland, Tex.
The Dallas suburb had hosted a pro-Muslim conference in January, about the time Islamist terrorists killed a dozen journalists with the satirical French publication Charlie Hebdo. Geller, a blogger and fierce critic of what she calls the “Islamization” of America, wanted to make a statement.
So she sponsored the Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest in the same exhibition hall as the earlier conference. She and her associates invited 200 people and hired 40 heavily armed off-duty police officers and security guards to protect them.
And then they unveiled the pictures: A drawing of Muhammad on a unicycle. A picture of the prophet with a beard of snakes. An angry Muhammad wearing a turban, holding a sword and yelling: “You can’t draw me!” — a reference to the fact that depicting the prophet is considered blasphemous by many Muslims.
If the contest was intended as bait, it worked. Police say two men drove 1,000 miles from Phoenix, shot at a police car outside the event and were quickly killed by one of the hired guards. The shooting has been condemned by Muslim leaders, and Geller, too, has come under fire for staging an event many viewed as purposely provocative.
“Pamela Geller has every right to hold this event. And she should be able to do that — as ugly as others, including me, think it is — without facing any type of violence,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has Geller on a list of extremists.
Still, “I think decent people would say: ‘Why would you need to do that?’ ” Beirich said.
In an interview Monday on CNN, Geller defended the cartoon contest, the latest in a series of her incendiary campaigns against Muslims in America.
“My event was about freedom of speech, period,” she told host Alisyn Camerota. “We need to have this conversation, and the fact that we have to spend upward of $50,000 on security speaks to how dangerous and how in trouble freedom of speech is in the country.”
That “those that were going to be slaughtered” by the gunmen are being maligned by critics “speaks to how morally inverted this conversation is,” she continued.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Geller said she and her fellow organizers were “prepared for violence” this past weekend. In tweets immediately after the shooting, Geller appeared almost gleeful that she had been right.
As one of the nation’s fiercest online critics of Islam, Geller, a housewife from Long Island, has long embraced her role as a provocateur. Her inflammatory rhetoric has landed her organizations, the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America, on a list of “hate groups” maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
On her blog and in interviews, Geller has accused President Obama of being beholden to “Islamic overlords,” according to the center. She was a leading opponent of a mosque planned for construction near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.
And last month, she drew headlines and an unsuccessful lawsuit for sponsoring an ad campaign that featured a quote her organization credited to the Palestinian militant group Hamas: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah.”
Geller insists that she is not an “Islamophobe” and that she does not believe all Muslims are violent. But critics note that some of her associates are bluntly anti-Muslim. The keynote speaker at Sunday’s event, for instance, was Geert Wilders, the Dutch parliament member who has called for the Koran to be banned in his country and suggested a tax on Muslim headscarves.
Why the cartoon contest? Geller said it was a direct response to a January conference in Garland, titled, “Stand With the Prophet in Honor and Respect.” The purpose of that event was to raise money to combat negative depictions of Muslims and their religion in the media.
In the past, the conference had been held without incident, said Alia Salem, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This time, however, the event triggered protests.
Salem said the local Muslim community has been on edge ever since. Controversy has also flared around a private arbitration service for Muslims that opened in Dallas last year — called an Islamic “tribunal” — and in connection with the shooting death of an Iraqi immigrant shot outside his Dallas apartment in March as he photographed his first snowfall.
“The North Texas Muslim community has been very nervous and scared,” Salem said. “Tension has been very high since January.”
Lindsey Bever, Marice Richter and Alice Crites contributed to this report.