What Is the American Freedom Defense Initiative? What to Know About the Provocative Group Behind Muhammad Cartoon Contest

NYC Mosque
AP

The group behind the provocative contest for cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad at a suburban Dallas venue attacked by two gunmen Sunday has a long history of courting controversy by targeting Muslims.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative, which was founded by Pamela Geller and hosted the contest, is listed as an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"We absolutely must have other events like this to stand up for free speech...," Geller told NBC News in May. "I will not abridge my freedoms so as not to offend savages."

A traffic officer working off-duty on security for the event in Garland, Texas, shot dead the two gunmen, who were wearing body armor and opened fire with assault rifles outside an entrance Sunday night, authorities said. An unarmed security guard was wounded in the leg.

Authorities were looking into whether the shooting were an terrorist attack, said Garland police officer Joe Harn.

The event promised a $10,000 prize for the best cartoon depicting Muhammad. Mainstream Islamic tradition considers any physical depiction of the prophet, even a respectful one, blasphemous.

Geller called the drawings of the Muslim prophet "political critique."

"I do believe western civilization is superior," she told NBC News.

Geller and her group have drawn headlines in the past for campaigning against the building of an Islamic center blocks from the World Trade Center site and for buying advertising space in cities across the U.S. that criticize Islam.

The group also spearheaded protests in Garland back in January, when a Chicago-based nonprofit held a fundraiser designed to help Muslims combat negative depictions of their faith. About 1,000 people picketed the event, some with signs with messages such as, "Insult those who behead others," an apparent reference to recent beheadings by the militant group Islamic State.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative and Geller were in the news again just last week, when the nation's largest mass transit system voted to ban all political ads on New York City subways and buses, following the group's legal battle to display "Hamas Killing Jews" ads on buses.

The policy change by the Metropolitan Transit Authority capped a legal battle that had ended when a judge ruled that Geller's group could show the ads, in a ruling Geller called a "victory for freedom and individual rights." The MTA had earlier refused to display one with the quote "Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah" because it could incite violence.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative has run controversial ads on subways and buses in other cities across the country as well — among them Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The group pulled an ad from the New York City transit system last fall that had shown the American journalist James Foley kneeling just before he was beheaded by an Islamic State executioner. His family had objected to the ad.

Alia Salem, the executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) condemned the actions of the gunmen, saying the attack was "not done in my name or in the name of millions of law abiding Muslims."

Khalid Y. Hamideh, an attorney who represents Muslim organizations in Texas, told NBC News the community in northern Texas decided not to protest the "Draw Muhammad" event because they didn't want Geller "to get more publicity than really what she deserved."

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