Garland shooting: why we must reject extremists on both sides

Pamela Geller (whose organisation hosted the event)

A shooting outside a conference on cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad left two gunmen dead and a security officer injured.

The two individuals drove to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland (a Texas suburb) and opened fire at a member of security staff with automatic rifles. Douglas Athas, the mayor of Garland, described the incident clearly:

“The first suspect was shot immediately. The second was shot and wounded, reached for his back pack and, of course, officers not knowing any idea what was in the back pack, shot him again and he was killed.”

Garland police are investigating whether an “incendiary device” was in the gunmen’s vehicle. Nor had police been aware of any credible threats against the event.

The ‘Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest’ was organised by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which is lead by Pamela Geller, an individual banned from entering the UK for her Islamophobic views.

Dutch anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders was a keynote speaker at the event. He told the rapturous crowd that most terrorists are Muslims, and “the less Islam the better.” Security at the event was tight. The AFDI paid out an additional $10,000 for 40 private security guards.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre categorise the AFDI as an active anti-Muslim hate group. Geller features in the ‘Fear, Inc. 2.0’ report that details the wider Islamophobia network operating in the United States.

AFDI are infamous for controversial bus adverts. An earlier campaign posed the Palestine-Israel issue as a struggle between “the civilized man” and “savages.” A new batch of posters will soon appear in New York.

At 6:35 p.m., a Twitter account (full of extremist content) used the hashtag #texasattack. The user wrote, “May Allah accept us as mujahideen.”

But the motivations behind the attack are unknown (at this stage). If the individuals sought a violent response to blasphemy, they betray how the Prophet Muhammad responded to insults.

Prior to the shooting, some Muslims used the publicity of Geller’s event to invert depictions of Muhammad with a positive and loving message:

Alia Salem, head of the Texas chapter of Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR), used her Facebook on April 25 to plead:

“I am calling on ALL community members in Dallas/Fort Worth to ignore and encourage others in the community to ignore Pamela Geller who will be holding a “Draw the Prophet Muhammad” contest at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland on May 3rd, 2015. This is her effort to incite our community and rile us up and I do not want us to give her the satisfaction or the media attention she thrives on. Without our reaction she has no story at all and no draw for the media which is what keeps her going and allows her to get publicity.

Please take as many opportunities as possible to discourage community members from going to the event, holding rallies or attempting to talk to the media regarding this issue.

Let’s not fall for it. Please”

Nor did the event attract any counter-protesters:

After the shootings, Geller took to her blog to label the incident a declaration of ‘war’ and wrote, “This is war on free speech. What are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?” It stands to reason to ask: who is that declaration aimed at? A revenge mentality might inspire some to target ordinary Muslims in Texas (a community already on edge).

The drawings entered into the competition go from the banal to racist. But had two extremists not reacted with violence, it is unlikely many beyond Texas would know of its existence.

Sadly, extremists on both sides intend to fan the flames of bigotry. Murderous intentions are no response to offence. For the majority of Muslims, the Garland shooting reset some to a ‘default switch’ where condemnation is expected.

But for the majority, who find non-violent means of ignoring and rejecting these caricatures must not give into either side. Many Muslims are secure enough in their faith to follow the response of their Prophet. Their voices matter. Find them and give them that platform..

Update: Elton Simpson ID’d as one of the suspected shooters. Simpson was well known to the FBI over terror links.

 Update #2: Second suspect identified as Nadir Soofi.