The Self-Fulfilling Prophet Drawing Competition
Meet the odd couple who built their careers goading, offending, and demonizing Muslims -- until it all went wrong in Garland, Texas.
He’s a silver-haired politician who warns about the threat of what he calls totalitarian Islam to Europe. She’s a preening ideologue who thinks Muslims use their daily prayers to curse Jews and Christians. Together, they organized a deliberately provocative event that ended with two gunmen — one of whom had professed sympathy for the Islamic State — being shot dead when they attacked a cartoon exhibit near Dallas devoted to depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.
Call Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders and American blogger Pamela Geller the odd couple of the global anti-Islam movement. They are the two most prominent agitators in Europe and the United States against what they see as the threat posed by Islam to Western civilization, and they have waged a joint campaign to demonize the religion and teamed up in 2010 against the planned construction of a mosque near New York’s Ground Zero.
They are provocateurs trading in explosive, often racist anti-Muslim rhetoric, and they are now on the front lines of a roiling debate about whether Western notions of free speech ought to take into consideration Muslim sensitivities about images of the Prophet Mohammed — a debate fueled in part by the massacre at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was carried out by self-proclaimed jihadis in Paris. Geller helped organize the Dallas event, which awarded $12,500 to the top Prophet Mohammed caricature, and Wilders was its featured speaker.
“If you wanted to conduct a science experiment to show you could elicit jihadist violence, this was the perfect setup,” former State Department counterterrorism director Daniel Benjamin told Foreign Policy Monday. “Extremists have shown they are eager to avenge any perception of blasphemy. The Islamic State is on a roll, and any extremists not in Syria and Iraq want to show that they are part of the team.”
The attack was carried out by a pair of gunmen decked out in body armor and carrying assault rifles: Elton Simpson, who had been convicted for lying to investigators about plans to travel to and join militant groups in Somalia and who had expressed support for the Islamic State, and Nadir Soofi. The two men had reportedly been roommates in Phoenix, and authorities believe they hoped to inflict significant civilian casualties at the contest site in Garland, a suburb of Dallas. Simpson had reportedly converted to Islam in high school. An off-duty police officer hired to provide security at the event shot and killed both men.
The January attack on the office of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by gunmen who claimed allegiance to al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch renewed attention on the difficult question of whether cartoonists should depict the Prophet Mohammed, an act that many Muslims find deeply offensive, despite the risk of sparking new bloodshed. Geller and Wilders have previously cited the Hebdo attack as evidence of a murderous strain of violence running through Islam.
Sunday’s event and the attack on it represent the extreme poles that have come to dominate this debate, with Wilders delivering a stock-in-trade diatribe against the religion. “Our Judeo-Christian culture is far superior to the Islamic one,” he said in remarks shortly before the shooting. “Let us de-Islamize our societies! No more Islam, no more mosques, no more Islamic schools. It is time for our own culture and heritage.”
Geller and the other organizers appeared to have anticipated that the competition faced a real threat, and police officers dressed in combat gear and carrying assault rifles guarded the event. The resulting attack will only raise Geller’s and Wilder’s public profiles — and, to their supporters, prove that they were right all along.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Geller tried to tie the incident to other attacks inspired by the Islamic State. It remains unclear whether either gunmen had formal ties to the group, though Simpson had expressed sympathy for the group on social media.
“The Islamic jihadis are determined to suppress our freedom of speech violently,” Geller said on CNN during one of multiple appearances Monday. “They struck in Paris and Copenhagen recently, and now in Texas.” Asked to respond to charges that her group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is anti-Muslim, she said, “There is a problem in Islam, as illustrated last night, and anyone that addresses it gets attacked in this same way.”
Geller, a self-styled expert on Islam lacking formal academic expertise on the subject, began her campaign three years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. She started a blog in 2004, called Atlas Shrugs, where she peddled a variety of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, including denying the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. Prior to Sunday’s shooting, she was best known for leading efforts to prevent a mosque from opening up near Ground Zero in New York. She is also the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the New York City resident has used all means of media to spread her message. In April, a judge ruled that New York authorities must allow Geller to run ads on the city’s transportation system that show a man in a headscarf and the words: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah. That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”
She’s not above using spectacle to sell her message: In 2006, she posted a video of herself talking about the Muslim threat in a bikini. Geller also isn’t afraid to traffic in conspiracy theories, including an accusation that President Barack Obama is the love child of Malcolm X, that Obama once dated a “crack whore,” and that the president was a Muslim as a youth.
Geller did not answer a list of questions emailed to her by Foreign Policy. In the past she has referred to FP as a “citadel of leftist power and influence.”
Geller has found a useful ally in Wilders, the right-wing Dutch politician, who has been prosecuted on hate crime charges in his native Netherlands. He was acquitted in 2011, receiving support from American anti-Muslim groups to defray his legal costs. Unmistakable with his mane of silver hair, Wilders has tried to cloak his intense dislike of Islam behind a veil of advocating on behalf of liberal values.
But what a thin veil it is. Wilders has campaigned for the Quran to be banned, comparing the holy text to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He once called for women wearing Muslim headscarves to pay a 1,000 euro “head rag tax.” Wilders has also pushed for banning immigration from majority-Muslim countries.
Benjamin, the former State Department official who is now a scholar at Dartmouth, said the United States must now balance the right to free speech with speech like the kind used by Wilders and Geller in their advocacy against Islam. “This is a direct descendant of the Terry Jones and the Quran burning,” he said, referring to the Florida pastor whose plans to put the Muslim holy book to flame resulted in deadly protests around the world. “It’s a serious question as to whether or not our constitutional rights of free speech need to be expressed this way and whether giving offense and insulting people is of any social value.”
Photo credit: Ben Torres/Getty Images
David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis