Who Is Pamela Geller?

Pamela Geller, whose group, AFDI, organized the event in Dallas that was attacked by gunmen, is known for her outspoken criticism of Islam. REUTERS/Mike Stone

When two gunmen shot up the site of a cartoon contest to draw the prophet Muhammad in a Dallas suburb on Sunday, Pamela Geller probably wasn't surprised. Geller, 56, whose group American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) sponsored the contest, is known for her outspoken criticism of Muslim extremists, whom she often and loudly calls "savages," and the mainstream media, who on Sunday she said "is self-enforcing a Shariah" under which criticism of Islam or Muslims is prohibited.

Though some scholars argue visual depictions of the prophet are acceptable, many practicing Muslims—including, it seems, the two gunmen who opened fire at Geller's event—disagree.

Geller's supporters say she is a professional provocateur and champion of free speech; critics argue she's a publicity hound who makes her living by spouting divisive, racist rhetoric at a time when Muslims already face heightened scrutiny and surveillance. In 2010, The New York Times profiled Geller in a piece titled "Outraged and Outrageous."

At Sunday's event, Geller disputed the allegation that she is racist: "Nobody wants to be called a racist," she said, "even though Islam is not a race."

Geller also disputes that she is anti-Muslim. "I am anti-jihad. I am anti-Shariah," she said in an interview with CNN's Alisyn Camerota. "I believe in the idea of a moderate Muslim. I do not believe in the idea of a moderate Islam," she told the Times. "I think a moderate Muslim is a secular Muslim."

Geller's career in media began in the 1980s, when she joined the New York Daily News. She later moved to The New York Observer as associate publisher. Geller has been waging her own holy war of sorts since the attacks of September 11, 2001. At the time, she had barely heard of Osama bin Laden, the Times wrote of her in 2010. She became a regular commenter on the right-wing anti-jihad blogosphere. Soon, she started her own blog, Atlas Shrugs, an homage to Atlas Shrugged by objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. Geller's blog makes her a folk hero to the right wing, but earns her the ire of the left: The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups, calls her the "relentlessly shrill and coarse" figurehead of the anti-Muslim movement in America. Geller's rhetoric was too strident for PayPal, who cut off Atlas Shrugs (the company later reinstated the service and apologized).

Even former colleagues of Geller's in the anti-jihad movement, like Charles Johnson, who runs the blog Little Green Footballs, think her criticism of Islam goes too far. "Nine-eleven didn't happen in a vacuum—it came from a long history. But when people like Pam Geller are the loudest voices out there talking about it, it drowns out everything else and makes everyone look crazy," Johnson told the Times. For her part, Geller thinks Johnson—who, unlike her, believes most Muslims are moderate—is a traitor to his principles.

Even the Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish group that opposed construction of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks, accused Geller of "vilifying the Islamic faith under the guise of fighting radical Islam."

Geller blames members of the media and academics for what she calls a "destructive narrative that is advanced at every level." Criticism of radical Islam is censored, she argues, while those who criticize Israel are given carte blanche. Geller is a strong supporter of the Jewish state. In 2012, a federal judge ruled New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority violated Geller's first amendment rights when it rejected pro-Israel advertisements submitted by AFDI. The ads were considered incendiary by many. "In any war between the civilized man and the savage," the ads said, "support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."

Pamela Geller stands in front of a subway ad sponsored by AFDI. Pamela Geller