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The Controversial Group Behind the Muhammad Cartoon Contest

4 minute read

A shooting in Texas has raised the specter in the United States of violence like the massacre in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

On Sunday, two men fired at a security guard in Dallas outside an art contest displaying cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Security returned fire, and the attackers were shot and killed.

Here’s what you need to know about the attack.

Who organized the contest?
The inaugural “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” was organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and billed as a celebration of free speech, at a time when images of Muhammad have sparked outrage among Muslims, who consider representations of the Prophet blasphemous. The group offered a $10,000 prize for cartoons of the Islamic prophet and hosted artists who depicted the Prophet. Various hosts, including keynote speaker Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, gave speeches defending free expression, and some made incendiary remarks about Islam. “Our Judeo-Christian culture is far superior to the Islamic one,” Wilders said Sunday at the contest. “I can give you a million reasons.”

What is the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI)?

The group describes itself as a freedom of speech advocacy movement, “opposed to Islamic prohibitions of ‘blasphemy’ and ‘slander.'” It calls for equal rights and freedom of conscience. Critics, including the hate-group tracking Southern Poverty Law Center, characterize the organization as anti-Muslim.

The Anti-Defamation League, which was founded to combat anti-Semitism, said in a 2010 statement, “the group seeks to rouse public fears by consistently vilifying the Islamic faith and asserting the existence of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy ‘American’ values.”

Who is behind it?
Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger. She told the New York Times in 2010 that when Muslims “pray five times a day… they’re cursing Christians and Jews five times a day.” Geller said the only moderate Muslim “is a secular Muslim.”

She describes herself as “anti-Jihad,” however, and not anti-Muslim. “I’m anti-jihad. … I don’t see how anyone could say I’m anti-Muslim. I love Muslims,” Geller told the Village Voice in 2012.

What is AFDI best known for?
The AFDI opposed the construction of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan in 2010, saying it was an affront to the victims of Sept. 11. The proposed building would have been a “mega-mosque,” Geller said, and the group called it a “beachhead for political Islam and Islamic supremacism in New York.” Developers and backers said the building was in fact a community center with a prayer space inside, and a meeting place for moderate Muslims. The proposal ended up failing, but the developer has since proposed building an Islamic museum at the same location.

The AFDI also posted ads in 2012 on the Washington D.C. subway that said “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The group has also paid for similar ads on public transportation in New York City, prompting the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency to ban all political ads last week.

Why did AFDI plan Sunday’s event?
Geller has said the event was a stand against “Islamic intimidation.” “This event will stand for free speech and show that Americans will not be cowed by violent Islamic intimidation,” Geller told the conservative news outlet Breitbart earlier this year. “If we don’t show the jihadis that they will not frighten us into silence, the jihad against freedom will only grow more virulent.”

The group paid $10,000 for additional security at the event, and local police had planned security for the event months ahead of the exhibit. A bomb squad, the FBI, and a SWAT team were all in place, Reuters reports, in addition to other security guards.

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