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On Sunday, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) hosted a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” at the Dallas-area Curtis Culwell Center. Two gunmen arrived in a car, opened fire on a security guard, and were then killed in an ensuing shootout. AFDI President Pamela Geller said to CNN this morning that the event and shooting will “wake up the American people to this vile assault on our freedom.” This “vile assault” is a none-too-thinly-veiled criticism of the Islamic faith.

At the outset, it is important to write: violence against innocent people is morally indefensible and absolutely in contrast to the laws that govern the United States. There is never an excuse for violence.

Having said that, the whole point of this AFDI event was to provoke a response. A Mohammed cartoon drawing contest? Seriously? AFDI was aiming to draw an extremist out of the woodwork. It is why they hosted their event at the same venue that in January was the site of the “Stand With the Prophet in Honor and Respect” conference, a rally against Islamophobia and a rejection of instigators that use Mohammed cartoons to incite conflict. It is also why AFDI spent $30,000 on private security services for the event, which treaded on the raw memory of cartoon-driven violence in Europe (notably, the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris).

AFDI’s rhetoric is all sleight of hand and misdirection, grasping at legitimacy even as their message is one of intolerance. Criticize their words, and they cite the First Amendment. Criticize their event, and they take it to mean one is defending violence. Criticize them individually, and they hint at a conspiracy of freedom-hating people trying to discredit their message by attacking the messenger. They have all the markings of a hate group, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified AFDI as extremist and anti-Muslim, a dubious classification that sits alongside groups like the KKK and the Sovereign Citizens.

These kinds of negative, fire-stoking messages are threats to safety, security and national progress. They give extremists more fodder for recruiting while simultaneously insulting the peaceful, taxpaying Americans who simply want to enjoy their constitutionally protected belief system in a free society. Hosting a Mohammed cartoon contest or some other obviously inflammatory event plays directly into the hands of extremist recruiters who are targeting our young people.

Something my research partner Erroll Southers and I found during our recent DHS-sponsored field study of terrorist recruitment in Minneapolis is that recruiters exploit the crisis of identity all young people experience as they mature from adolescents to adults. Particularly for immigrants and first-generation Americans, it can be challenging to craft an identity that can accommodate the “Old World” traditions of one’s parents and the secular pluralism of the United States. Terrorist recruiters target young people grappling with this crisis of identity and say, “You’re not like these Americans. You’re like us.”

That simple suggestion of a young person’s “real” identity is the starting point for radicalization and recruitment to a terrorist group. AFDI and groups like them create very public fodder for recruiters. Right now, there could be a recruiter in the United States saying, “These Americans purposefully insult your religion. You’re not like them.”

Geller and other anti-Muslim figureheads hide behind the First Amendment, claiming total immunity from any kind of responsibility for ramping up tensions. Yet, they are getting in the way of a productive, important conversation we need to be having as a country. More critically, they inject confusion and anger into conversations American-Muslim families are trying to have with their children, conversations on identity that all American immigrants have had for centuries.

AFDI and others are perpetuating conflict in a time when we should be engendering collaboration, insulting their fellow Americans at a time when we need to be united against the decidedly un-Islamic actions of ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Geller and her ilk are not advancing and celebrating our Constitutional rights. They are threatening our security and progress.

Details are still emerging about the two now-dead shooters who attacked the event, but it’s a fair bet they were motivated by Islamic extremism. Their actions were wrong, but that doesn’t make AFDI right. Indeed, AFDI manipulates messages and ideas to sow conflict and advance their unforgiving ideology of personal superiority. That is extremism. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More
  • Fritz

    I find this post rather incoherent.

    In the first paragraph, you write “Two gunmen arrived in a car, opened fire on a security guard, and were
    then killed in an ensuing shootout. AFDI President Pamela Geller said to
    CNN this morning that the event and shooting will ‘wake up the American
    people to this vile assault on our freedom.’ This ‘vile assault’ is a
    none-too-thinly-veiled criticism of the Islamic faith.” The “vile assault” was a “vile assault,” period. How does the term “vile assault” constitute a “criticism of the Islamic faith”?

    Then you assert that “There is never an excuse for violence.” Oh, really? Not even in self-defense, or in defense of the nation when it — or its citizens vital interests — are attacked or under imminent threat of attack? There was no excuse for the violence in Garland, as you admit when you say that “violence against innocent people is morally indefensible.” But don’t lump inexcusable violence with justified violence.

    You seem eager to blame the AFDI for setting an example that radical recruiters can point to. But radical recruiters can find many things to point to, and will do so, AFDI or no AFDI. The real problem is the radical recruiters and malleable minds at their disposal. There seem to be a lot more such minds among Muslims than among other identifiable groups. Doesn’t that tell you something about the real source of the problem?

    Evidently not, given your platitudinous statement that APDI and its like “are getting in the way of a productive, important conversation we need to be having as a country.” A “conversation” about what and with whom? Terrorists are interested in conversations. They just go around killing people while dupes pontificate about conversing with them.

    • Anwer

      Really shame America..y inviting terrorism into own land by conducting such contests..

      • JZ

        No, people that respond to being offended with violence are terrorists. Conducting such contests is not inviting terrorism, it is simply revealing its existence. While such actions may be obnoxious, it is still protected freedom of speech. Deeming it offensive doesn’t change that – once it does, we no longer have freedom of speech. Though I have no desire to go out of my way to insult others’ religious beliefs, the right to do so must be protected or our rights are all now conditional in the face of threats of violence. Blame rests solely on those committing these violent acts. THEY are the security threat, not this group, even if they are being needlessly inflammatory in their speech – they are still allowed to do so under the first amendment.

  • Marcus Tectus

    @Hienz
    “AFDI’s rhetoric is all sleight of hand and misdirection,…”
    On the contrary, everything AFDI says is backed up by verifiable facts, quotes from Islamic doctrine, reports of atrocities in the name of Islam and the like.
    It is this ‘report’ which is sleight-of-hand and misdirection.

    “…the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified AFDI as extremist and anti-Muslim.”
    The SPLC? You cannot be serious. The SPLC has no credibility, especially after classifying Rand Paul and Dr Ben Carson as ‘extremist’.
    Well, they got the anti-Muslim bit almost right. Actually AFDI is anti-Islam. There is a difference.

    “…they [AFDI] are getting in the way of a productive, important conversation we need to be having as a country.”
    What conversation is that? Who is having such a conversation?

    “…the decidedly un-Islamic actions of ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.”
    ISIS =are= Islamic, and they say so in the first line of their creed. They run their captured territories as Islamic societies under the rule of Shari’ah (law). They are as Islamic as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

    “AFDI manipulates messages and ideas to sow conflict and advance their unforgiving ideology of personal superiority. That is extremism.”
    No, that is not extremism. Extremism is killing people to further an ideological agenda. Extremists are those who kill when their religious icon is mocked.
    How many people has AFDI killed? How many suicide bombers has AFDI trained? None.
    AFDI’s primary purpose is to educate Americans re Islam and it does an admirable job at considerable risk.

    AFDI is not ‘hiding behind’ the 1st amendment, they are =exercising= it, as their constitutional right.
    AFDI members are patriots, you should be supporting them (not attacking them)…

    You’re in the wrong role Mr Hienz. The first and foremost function of a security analyst is to clearly identify the threat (the enemy) – and you have manifestly failed to do that.

    In fact, it gets worse. If you think that the SPLC is a credible organization, and that ISIS is un-Islamic – then you don’t have a clue…

  • Marcus Tectus

    @Hienz
    You said: “AFDI’s rhetoric is all sleight of hand and misdirection,…”
    On the contrary, everything AFDI says is backed up by verifiable facts, quotes from Islamic doctrine, reports of atrocities in the name of Islam and the like.
    It is this ‘debrief’ which is all sleight-of-hand and misdirection.

    You said: “…the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified AFDI as extremist and anti-Muslim, a dubious classification that sits alongside groups like the KKK…”
    The SPLC? You cannot be serious. The SPLC has no credibility, especially after classifying Rand Paul and Dr Ben Carson as ‘extremist’. Well, they got the anti-Muslim bit almost right. Actually AFDI is anti-Islam. There is a difference.
    And the KKK? The Klan =killed= people Mr Hienz. So far, the AFDI has not harmed anyone. Its leaders are busy however, trying to stay alive after multiple death threats – yet you claim =they= are extremists?

    You said: “…they [AFDI] are getting in the way of a productive, important conversation we need to be having as a country.”
    What conversation is that? Who is having such a conversation?

    You said: “…the decidedly un-Islamic actions of ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.”
    ISIS =is= Islamic, and it says so in the first line of its creed. It runs its captured territories as Islamic societies under the rule of Shari’ah (law). ISIS is as Islamic as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
    Its connection to Islam is obvious. Can’t you see that?

    You said: “AFDI manipulates messages and ideas to sow conflict and advance their unforgiving ideology of personal superiority. That is extremism.”
    No, that is not extremism. Extremism is killing people to further an ideological agenda. Extremists are those who kill when their religious icon is mocked.
    How many people has AFDI killed? How many suicide bombers has AFDI trained? None.
    AFDI’s primary purpose is to educate Americans re Islam and it does an admirable job at considerable risk to its organizers.
    What exactly is AFDI’s “…unforgiving ideology of personal superiority.”? Do tell.

    AFDI is not ‘hiding behind’ the 1st amendment, they are =exercising= it, as their constitutional right.

    You’re in the wrong role Mr Hienz. The first and foremost function of a security analyst is to clearly identify the threat (the enemy) – and you have failed to do that.

    In fact, it gets worse. Apparently you think that the SPLC is a credible organization, that ISIS is un-Islamic and that AFDI is ‘extremist’. Yet you regard yourself as a homeland security expert?