In 2010, there was the controversy surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in Manhattan. In 2011, campaigns to ban sharia law cropped up in numerous states. Since 2012, inflammatory advertisements about Islamic “jihad” and supposed “Jew-hatred” have appeared in bus and subway stations in major U.S. cities.
To the average American, these events likely appeared disparate and unrelated, albeit troubling. But these diverse campaigns are, in fact, related: all three are projects of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a small group with a big wallet—and an even bigger impact.
AFDI was founded in 2010, with the stated mission to combat the West’s “capitulation” to “global jihad and Islamic supremacism.” The co-founders, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, do this primarily through their widely-read blogs, where they post daily diatribes about Muslims and their “violent” religion.
Geller and Spencer’s respective websites, Atlas Shrugs and Jihad Watch, portray Muslims and their faith in a universally negative light, while consistently criticizing those of the left side of the political spectrum. Geller and Spencer not only provide misguided commentary, but also to fabricate untruths. On April 28, 2015, for example, Geller falsely claimed that a resident of Baltimore was carrying the flag of ISIS during protests there.
Geller and Spencer have no formal education on Islam or Middle East affairs, but the two have become major commentators on issues relating to Islam. Their blogs enjoy wide readership, and they have appeared often on cable television like CNN, Fox News, and Christian Broadcasting Network in recent years. Both are also New York Times Bestselling authors. Touted as an expert, Spencer has given lectures on Islam to American law enforcement groups.
Geller and Spencer also maintain connections with xenophobic activists and organizations abroad. After teaming up to create AFDI, Geller and Spencer started Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), a sister project of its European counterpart Stop the Islamization of Europe (SIOE). Together, under the banner of Stop Islamization of Nations (SION), they host rallies around the world decrying the “threat” of Islam to Western societies. AFDI has touted its connections to the English Defence League, and actively supports the work of anti-Muslim politician Dutch politician, Geert Wilders. Geller and Spencer’s work was also cited numerous times in the manifesto of Anders Breivik, who murdered dozens of people in Norway in an anti-Muslim, anti-leftist shooting spree. Referencing Spencer’s more than 60 times, Breivik wrote, “About Islam I recommend essentially everything written by Robert Spencer.” Though they attempted to distance themselves from Breivik’s endorsement, Geller expressed that he had accurately diagnosed Norway’s problem: increased “Islamization.”
Despite being labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and being banned from speaking in the United Kingdom, Spencer and Geller maintain positive relationships with some Republican politicians and influential conservative media outlets like Fox News.
Billboards on buses
Spencer and Geller have been largely marginalized in the mainstream media, yet their organization’s funds have still afforded them a voice in public discourse about Islam. AFDI is able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising campaigns, while still providing a six figure salary to its president, Geller.
AFDI has funded more than a dozen different ad campaigns, featuring at least two-dozen unique advertisements, in New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco since 2012. Fundraising efforts on Indiegogo show that AFDI need to raise tens of thousands of dollars for each campaign. A single batch of ads in New York City cost $70,000. Despite these high costs, in 2013 alone, Geller made $210,870 from AFDI.
It is unclear where all of AFDI’s money comes from — they say their funds are donated by “supporters,” and their websites do offer the option for readers to contribute money through PayPal.
How a Muslim YMCA Became a “Monument to Terror”
While the ad campaign is AFDI’s most visible product, the organization has supported other controversial efforts. Soon after it was founded, AFDI was able to prompt a national discussion around what Geller dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque” in the summer of 2010.
AFDI and SIOA held rallies and town halls to oppose the construction of an Islamic community center called Park 51. These efforts drew national media attention and Geller appeared on CNN. The controversy got so big that major American polling organizations surveyed Americans on their opinions of the center. A majority of those polled, who would likely never have known about Park 51 if it wasn’t for AFDI’s efforts, responded that they “opposed” the mosque.
Supporting “Anti-Sharia” Legislation
AFDI is also intimately tied to the two-dozen “anti-sharia” bills that were introduced in American state courts. AFDI’s lawyer, David Yerushalmi, who has represented AFDI in lawsuits against metropolitan transit entities that didn’t want to run the Islamophobia ads, drafted the model legislation “American Law for American Courts,” which would outlaw “sharia” or “foreign law” in states. This campaign was a solution in search of a problem: the constitution is the law of the land in the United States, and there have been no efforts by Muslims to impose any sort of religious law on other Americans.
Geller and Spencer were big supporters of these bills, which passed in several states, and their rhetoric—about “stealth jihad” and “creeping sharia”—convinced many Americans of the law’s necessity.
From Charlie Hebdo to Garland
AFDI organized multiple events in the wake of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in France. On January 17, 2015, AFDI organized a “Free Speech Rally” in Garland, Texas down the street from an Islamic conference called “Stand With the Prophet Against Terror and Hate.” Thousands attended the protest with signs and t-shirts expressing disdain for Islam. Spencer spoke to the raucous crowd, claiming that the Muslims at the conference have “exactly the same goal” as those who murdered the cartoonists in France. “What you have across the street,” he said, “is the soft side of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.”
On May 3, 2015, AFDI held another event in Garland: the “Muhammad Art Exhibit & Contest.” Drawing a few hundred attendees, the event received national attention after two gunmen shot at the convention center. Participants submitted artwork of Islam’s last prophet, Muhammad, portraying him in crude and lewd caricatures, many of which can be seen on AFDI’s Facebook page. The winning cartoon was drawn by Bosch Fawstin, a cartoonist with a long history of Islamophobic artwork, including an American protagonist named “Pigman,” the “counter-jihad superhero.” Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who has called for bans on the Qur’an, mosques, and headscarves, was the event’s keynote speaker.