Garland shooting: What is the American Freedom Defense Initiative?
Its name paints an image of a group dedicated to protecting American ideals. But critics call it the opposite — an intolerant hate group opposed to freedom of religion.
Now, with two gunmen killed outside one of its events, the American Freedom Defense Initiative is back in the spotlight — once again, surrounded by debate.
Here’s what to know about the controversial group:
It calls itself a human rights organization …
The AFDI says it has several tenets, including:
— Freedom of speech, “as opposed to Islamic prohibitions of ‘blasphemy’ and ‘slander,’ ” which quashes open dialogue of jihad and Islamic supremacism, the group says
— “The freedom of conscience — as opposed to the Islamic death penalty for apostasy”
— Equal rights of all people, “as opposed to … institutionalized discrimination against women and non-Muslims” in Sharia law, or strict Islamic law.
… but it’s also listed as an extremist group
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the American Freedom Defense Initiative as an active anti-Muslim group in its “Extremist Files” database.
“All anti-Muslim hate groups exhibit extreme hostility toward Muslims,” said the SPLC, which tracks hate groups.
“Anti-Muslim hate groups also broadly defame Islam, which they tend to treat as a monolithic and evil religion. These groups generally hold that Islam has no values in common with other cultures, is inferior to the West and is a violent political ideology rather than a religion.”
The SPLC also describes the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, Pamela Geller, as “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead.”
“Who designated the SPLC as a legitimate authority? They are a radical leftist group who targets patriots, vets and even GOP presidential candidates,” she told CNN. “They have never named a jihadi group as a hate group.”
It has a program called Stop Islamization of America
Geller is the president of both. Her website touts award from Republican clubs as well as a Creative Zionist Coalition award for Jewish Heroism.
Among the principles of Stop Islamization of America: “SION calls for an immediate halt of immigration by Muslims into nations that do not currently have a Muslim majority population.”
It also calls for “surveillance of mosques and regular inspections of mosques in the U.S. and other non-Muslim nations to look for pro-violence materials.”
It fought against the mosque near Ground Zero
In 2010, Stop Islamization of American rallied against the building of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers once stood.
“Building the Ground Zero mosque is not an issue of religious freedom, but of resisting an effort to insult the victims of 9/11 and to establish a beachhead for political Islam and Islamic supremacism in New York,” the group said.
“Ground Zero is a war memorial, a burial ground. Respect it.”
In its protest against the mosque, the group drafted an ad campaign showing a plane about to hit the World Trade Center with smoke in the background. The ad then features what Geller called the the World Trade Center “mega-mosque” and questions why it would be built there.
It’s launched controversial ad campaigns on subways
In 2012, the AFDI launched an ad campaign in the Washington subway system.
The ad read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
Jihad — which means “struggle” in Arabic — is considered a religious duty for Muslims, though there are both benign and militant interpretations of what it means.
Geller defended the message.
“We don’t think it’s controversial,” she 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.”
It’s not the group’s first venture into public transit systems. The AFDI has also drafted contentious ads for the New York and San Francisco subway systems, though the ads in New York have been under litigation with the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
It refuses to back down
On Sunday, the AFDI hosted a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas, when gunfire erupted outside.
The AFDI said it specifically picked Garland’s Curtis Culwell Center, a school district-owned facility, because it hosted an event denouncing Islamophobia in January.
The cartoon contest was a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack in which five cartoonists and several others were killed, Geller told CNN.
“The grand prize was $10,000,” she said. “Then there was a people’s choice award where people could vote online” for a $2,500 prize.
As the event was winding down, two men drove by the building, got out of their car and started shooting, Garland police said.
A security guard was shot in the ankle, and police returned fire on the gunmen, authorities said. Both gunmen died near the car. It’s not clear who they were or their motive may have been.
Geller said the shooting won’t deter her group from hosting similar events in the future.
“I will not abridge my freedoms so as not to offend savages,” she said. “Freedom of speech is under violent assault here.”
By Holly Yan
CNN’s Joe Sutton and Ed Lavandera and journalist Martin Rand III contributed to this report.