Prophet Mohammed contest ‘saved lives’, claims host

Pamela Geller is of the US's most outspoken critics of Islamic extremism. Picture: AP
Pamela Geller is of the US's most outspoken critics of Islamic extremism. Picture: AP
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THE organiser of the Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest that ended in a deadly shoot-out has said she had no regrets hosting the event - and claims it probably saved lives.

Pamela Geller said she planned similar contests to the one in Garland, Texas, but would be wearing a bulletproof vest.

“I will continue to speak in defence of freedom until the day I die,” Ms Geller said, as a grim-looking personal security guard hovered nearby. “It’s just that simple. It’s not even a choice. It’s a calling.”

Ms Geller has always hired armed security guards to protect the scores of events she has spearheaded across the US in recent years to decry Islamic extremism.

But the furore over Sunday’s shooting in Garland has led to a specific threat against her, posted on a website related to the Islamic State (IS) group, and the New York Police Department is taking it seriously. Now she does not travel anywhere without protection.

Ms Geller, 56, said she believed she saved lives by hosting the contest because the two Muslim gunmen shot dead by police would have picked another soft target and killed innocent civilians.

“Would you regret saving lives?” she said.

A master of rhetoric and clearly comfortable in the spotlight, the former media executive shifted easily from charming to combative. Her critics have called the cartoon contest needlessly provocative, practically an invitation for violence.

But Ms Geller argued that any blame should be focused on extremists who cannot be criticised or lampooned without resorting to violence.

“Cartoons are political critique. It’s a cartoon,” she said. “Is that what we want to outlaw? We want to outlaw humour? We want to outlaw comedy? If you want to know who rules over you, find out who you cannot criticise.”

Her activities have prompted the Southern Poverty Law Centre to add her to its extremist files, calling her “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead”.

In an editorial, The New York Times said Ms Geller “has a long history of declarations and actions motivated purely by hatred for Muslims” and called the Garland event “an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.

“To pretend it was motivated by anything other than hate is simply hogwash,” it added.

Ms Geller was once part of the elite media machine she professes to despise, working for the business operations of the Daily News and the New York Observer. Then, she was a self-described “apolitical” mother who paid little mind to world affairs.

“I loved my fashion. I loved my life. I loved my career,” she said. “I assumed my freedom. I grew up free, you know? I grew up in the freest country in the world. And I loved it.”

Then, she said, “9/11 happened. And it was shattering”.

Ignorant of terrorism, Ms Geller said she dived deeply into the internet to learn more. She joined a burgeoning online community obsessed with jihad and terrorism and began opining in the comments section.

One day in 2004, a fellow commenter encouraged her to create her own blog.

“I’m like, ‘What’s a blog?’,” Ms Geller recalled. “And he said, ‘Shut up and start writing’.”

Today, Geller has nearly 68,000 Twitter followers and a devoted army of virtual supporters for her websites, books and public events.

As head of an organisation called the American Freedom Defence Initiative, she took in 960,000 dollars (£623,000) in donations in 2013, paying herself a salary of 192,500 (£125,000), according to tax filings.

Donations pour in from the PayPal button on her website, she said, adding that she has “no idea” how much money she has raised.

Records do not list donors, but a recent report by the Centre for American Progress, a think-tank in Washington, said Ms Geller’s top donors included the Fairbrook Foundation, which supports a number of mainstream conservative groups.

In 2010 she famously led a campaign to prevent the opening of an Islamic community centre, streets from New York’s World Trade Centre site, calling it the “ground zero mosque”.

She has filed numerous lawsuits across the US in recent years, many of them related to her attempts to display incendiary ads in public transport systems. Most recently, New York City’s transport authority banned all political advertising after a judge upheld Ms Geller’s right to run bus ads about Islam that said: “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah.”