If your introduction to Pamela Geller was the CNN interview following Sunday’s shooting in Garland, Texas, you might be wondering why journalists were so combative with the well-spoken, patriotic lady from Long Island. Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, said the fact that they had to pay $50,000 for extra security officers at their art show “speaks to how dangerous and how in trouble freedom of speech is in this country,” adding, “And then we have to get on these news shows and somehow we are — those that are targeted, that were going to be slaughtered — are the ones who get attacked … ”
Geller’s supporters believe she merely tells the truth about Islam and defends the First Amendment, but according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, she’s “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead.” The AFDI and Geller’s group Stop the Islamization of America are on the organization’s list of “active anti-Muslim groups,” and for years she’s been behind some of the virulently Islamophobic events in the nation. Here’s how she became one of the most divisive figures in the debate over Islam and free speech.
From Housewife to Blogosphere Star
Geller grew up on Long Island and attended Hofstra University, but did not graduate. Throughout the ‘80s she worked on the business side of the New York Daily News, and in 1989 she became the associate publisher of the New York Observer. She married, had four daughters, and quit her job in 1994 to be a stay-at-home mom. According to a 2010 New York Times profile, when she got divorced in 2007, she received a settlement of more than $4 million, which allowed her to buy an apartment in Manhattan and focus on her blogging.
Her activism was sparked by 9/11. She said she “felt guilty” that she knew little about those who attacked the country, so she started studying Islamic extremism and commenting on the site Little Green Footballs (Charles Johnson, who runs the blog, has denounced her).
She went on to start her own blog, Atlas Shrugs, in 2004. The site grew in popularity when Geller published the Muhammad cartoons that sparked riots when they appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2006. She advanced some of the most outlandish rumors about Barack Obama during the 2008 election, suggesting that Malcolm X is his real father (she later said she doesn’t believe this), and that he was involved with a “crack whore” in his youth. (Sample line: “Back in the early 80’s, there were only two reasons to travel to Pakistan. Jihad or drugs. I think [Obama] went for the drugs and came back with jihad.”) And there’s the famous video blog in which she discusses the Israel-Palestine conflict while swimming in a bikini:
In 2010, Geller and Robert Spencer of Jidhadwatch.org founded the nonprofit American Freedom Defense Initiative. According to the L.A. Times, a 2013 tax form says AFDI’s mission is to “act against the treason being committed by national, state and local government officials, the mainstream media and others in their capitulation to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism, the ever-encroaching and unconstitutional power of the federal government, and the rapidly moving attempts to impose socialism and Marxism upon the American people.”
While Geller and Spencer insist that they are just standing up for basic human rights, gunman Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, cited their writings in his manifesto, and the pair were banned from entering the U.K. to address the far-right English Defence League. The British government explained in a letter that they do not admit foreigners who “torment or justify terrorist violence” and “seek to provoke others to terrorist attacks.”
The Campaign Against the “Ground Zero Mosque”
Even those who aren’t familiar with Geller should remember the national controversy she instigated. In the summer of 2010 there was a massive backlash against Park51, a proposed Islamic center several blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center — or as Geller called it “the Islamic fortress, the 911 monster mosque, being built on hallowed ground zero.” 60 Minutes credited her with being the first to dub the center the “mosque at ground zero.” Soon dozens of media outlets were booking interviews with the mosque’s most ardent critic, and conservative politicians were picking up on her rhetoric. In September 2011, an exhibit hall and prayer space opened in the location with little fanfare, but the 15-story community center never came to fruition. A year ago the developer announced plans to construct a small museum devoted to Islam at the site.
In the 60 Minutes report on the controversy, Geller told Scott Pelley simply telling the truth had made her “a devil in the eyes of the media.” He noted that she didn’t seem to mind being in that role. “I do mind it very much,” she said, smiling. “What am I gonna do, shut up? You’re never gonna shut me up.”
The Anti-Muslim Subway Ads
Indeed, Geller did not shut up, but the U.S. media stopped listening as closely as the mosque controversy faded. Yet Geller continued making headlines in cities around the country as she purchased ads in transit systems that made the case against Islam using the most incendiary imagery possible. In 2012, the MTA initially rejected an ad that read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man,” but a judge overruled on First Amendment grounds and it went up in subway stations. “We don’t think it’s controversial,” Geller said at the time. “It’s truth. Telling the truth now is equated with ‘hate’ and ‘bigotry’ in an attempt to silence and demonize the truth-tellers. That makes my ads all the more important.”
Geller’s group followed that up with an ad featuring the World Trade Center attack and an out-of-context quote from the Koran: “Soon shall we cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers.”
Next the AFDI bought space on buses in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York to display messages like “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s In the Quran” coupled with a photo of Adolf Hitler.
Last year, Geller removed an image of the beheading of journalist Jim Foley from an ad slated for New York’s subway after his family objected. She said she swapped in “someone else’s severed head.”
In April, a judge ruled that the MTA must post the latest batch of AFDI ads, which show a man in a headscarf and the message “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah. That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?” After years of battling Geller in court, the MTA finally found a solution: Last week they banned all political ads from New York’s subway system.
The Garland, Texas, Shooting
In response to January’s Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, AFDI held a Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Texas, featuring drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, which Muslims consider offensive. In an online contest held prior to the event, people voted for the best cartoon of Muhammad and the winner was awarded a $10,000 prize. (Geller says it was “won by a former Muslim.”)
The group chose to book the event at the Curtis Culwell Center, which is owned by the local school district, because it had been the site of an anti-Islamophobia conference in January. Geller was giving an interview when shots rang out and the building was put on lockdown.
The event put Geller back in the spotlight, and in multiple interviews on Monday she insisted the shooting just proved her point. She wrote on her blog:
This incident shows how much needed our event really was. 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?
One of the soldiers guarding our event told me that he supported our work, knew that it was necessary, and was grateful that we were doing it. He exemplifies the spirit that is going to bring America back.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Muslim civil-rights group, has condemned the shooting, calling it “more insulting to our faith than any cartoon, however defamatory. Bigoted speech can never be an excuse for violence.”
A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Little Green Footballs as a conservative site. Charles Johnson notes that hasn’t been the case for many years. We regret the error.