On the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pamela Geller stood before thousands of people crowding a street near ground zero and chanted “No mosque here!”
Geller, addressing New York’s mayor at the time, Michael R. Bloomberg, demanded to know why he was not blocking the planned opening of an Islamic center near the site of the former World Trade Center. “I want to ask Mr. Bloomberg,” she bellowed into a microphone, “tell us, please, do you sleep well?”
Geller lost that battle, but she catapulted her American Freedom Defense Initiative into the public eye and into the crosshairs of enemies, who on Sunday attacked an AFDI event in Texas dedicated to lampooning the prophet Muhammad.
The attack, by two gunmen who were shot dead by police, was the first violence targeting Geller’s New York-based organization, which also is sometimes known as Stop Islamization of America. But it was not the first time critics have sought to silence a group disparately described as dedicated to hatred, or dedicated to free speech.
Geller, 56, won a victory last month when a U.S. district judge ordered New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to let her group post ads in subways showing 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?”
Critics had fought the ads on grounds they could incite violence. The judge called them “offensive” but said they were protected by the 1st Amendment. It was Geller’s second victory over the MTA, which in 2012 lost a battle to prevent ads in the subways that included the words, “Support Israel, defeat Jihad.”
Geller co-founded AFDI in 2010 with Robert Spencer, a fellow conservative, writer and director of a blog called Jihad Watch. Geller grew up in Long Island, N.Y., and traces her political views to the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Her group was described in 2013 tax documents as a nonprofit "dedicated to freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and individual rights under the law." It listed contributions and grants that year of more than $958,000, compared with $157,855 the year before. Geller, its president, is paid about $200,000 a year, according to the group's filings.
Among other things, it says that 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."
A onetime journalist, Geller worked for the Daily News in New York and served as associate publisher of the New York Observer before turning full time to what critics consider her campaign of Islamaphobia.
She has no academic credentials as an expert in Islam or jihad. But through her blog, Atlas Shrugs, and her willingness to espouse harsh views of Islam, Geller has gained a following that includes John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who spoke via video link in support of her at the protest on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
One of Geller’s biggest fans is Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch member of parliament best known for his criticism of Islam.
“Pamela is an extraordinary woman. I only have a few heroes, but Pamela certainly is one of them,” Wilders said during a speech at the Garland, Texas, event Sunday.
“Islam and freedom are totally incompatible,” Wilders added.
Geller says she is not anti-Muslim, only anti-jihad and anti-sharia law.
Critics, notably the Southern Poverty Law Center, say she is a hate-monger. The Alabama-based center describes her as “the anti-Muslim movement's most visible and flamboyant figurehead.”
Heidi Beirich, intelligence project director at the center, said she expected Geller to try to harness sympathy by comparing her group to the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, which was attacked in January after publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
But Beirich said there was no comparison. “Charlie Hebdo was an equal opportunity mocker,” Beirich said of the Paris magazine, which was to be honored in New York on Tuesday by the PEN American Center literary group. “All she does is bash Muslims. That’s it."
Beirich said the SPLC’s description of Geller’s organization as a hate group is “richly deserved.” “The violence is unacceptable,” Beirich said of the attack in Texas. “But her claim for free speech is really about the right to bash Muslims. I don’t think we should take it as anything but that.”
Geller, speaking on CNN after the attack, said the violence was proof that groups like hers and conferences like the one in Texas are needed in the United States.
“My event was about freedom of speech, period,” Geller said, rejecting the idea that it was irresponsible to host such an event in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. “It’s dangerous because we’re increasingly abridging our freedom of speech so as not to offend savages,” she said.
“No one is saying there aren’t peaceful Muslims,” Geller added, “but there is a problem in Islam as illustrated last night, and anyone who addresses it gets attacked.”
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Geller’s claim to be a defender of free speech was laughable because she had tried unsuccessfully to block the Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera from expanding into the United States in 2011.
“It’s just so hypocritical. She’s regularly trying to silence Muslim organizations and Muslim academics,” Hooper said.
Geller, in her opposition to Al Jazeera, described it in an op-ed piece in 2011 as "the leading terrorist propaganda organization in the world."
But Hooper conceded that Geller is able to drum up donations and support through inflammatory tactics, such as placing controversial ads in public transit systems and then getting coverage of her ensuing legal battles.
“She gets money every time she’s able to get cheap publicity. She’s really a master of the free publicity shtick,” he said.
Despite her claims to be a misunderstood defender of free speech, Geller’s views have consistently drawn controversy. She and Spencer were banned from entering Britain in 2013 to speak at a rally for the far-right English Defence League.
In his manifesto, Anders Behring Breivik, a gunman who killed 77 people in a bombing and shooting rampage in Norway in 2011, cited Geller, Spencer and Wilders as influences.
In a statement, the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the Texas attack and called it “more insulting to our faith than any cartoon, however defamatory.”
But the group blamed Geller and like-minded activists as well.
“Unfortunately, human history shows us that hatred breeds more hatred and extremism leads to more extremism,” the group said. “Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Geert Wilders and the perpetrators of yesterday’s attack all seek to provoke a downward spiral of mutual hostility and mistrust in America and around the world."
Geller was married for 17 years to Michael Oshry, and the couple owned a luxury auto dealership on Long Island. They divorced in 2007, and Oshry died the following year as the dealership was being investigated in connection with an alleged identity theft and fraud scheme.
Prosecutors in Nassau County, on Long Island, said the scam supplied drug dealers, gang leaders and pimps with luxury cars bought using stolen identities. Geller was not charged in the case.
The New York Times reported that she received nearly $4 million in her divorce settlement, plus some proceeds from the sale of the couple's $1.8-million home.
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