We now know that the two gunmen killed last night, in Garland, Texas, had links to Islamic terrorism. Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi had opened fire outside a ‘contest’ at the Curtis Culwell Center to draw cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and were then shot dead themselves.
This contest was the brainchild of the virulently anti-Muslim Pamela Geller, co-founder of the American Freedom Defense Initiative. And so last night in Garland you could say there was a meeting of extremes—and resulting from that engagement, two deaths.
I was at the center both last night as the drama unfolded—as Daily Beast readers may have seen—and last January when I reported on the demonstrations outside the center as Muslims met inside for a “Stand With The Prophet” conference.
Only a few weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Muslims in Texas were holding a conference on “Islamophobia” amid concerns that rising anti-Islamic sentiment would affect them in their adopted home.
Geller and several thousand protesters were there to meet them, peacefully and loudly, with a clear statement: Muslims were not welcome in Garland, a blue collar suburb just outside Dallas.
“Proud Texas Infidel”—“Americans Against Islam #ARRESTOBAMANOW”—“Jesus is Lord”—and, most tellingly, “Not Here! Not Now! Not In My Backyard!” were just a few of the hand-drawn poster board signs that greeted Muslim attendees.
Most of those demonstrators I talked to told me in lilting Texas accents that this wasn’t personal against Muslim people but that the Muslim faith itself was incompatible with American values.
Last night I was back at the same convention center to attend Geller’s cartoon contest. Walking in, the Texas and American flags ran rampant across t-shirts, hats, and in tight fists, as if each attendee were a modern-day Neil Armstrong claiming the convention center for Texas, for America, for Jesus.
“Oh you should see my car,” Donna Williams told me, “you haven’t seen my car out there? Oh, if you walk by my car, you’ll see it. It’s covered in eagles on the front, an American eagle on both sides, and a Texas flag and an American flag and the Israeli flag and a ‘we the people’ on the bumper.”
Was she worried about security? “I was, but when I pulled into the parking lot and saw all the police, the SWAT teams, you know I think there are more of them than there is of us—so, I’m fine, but I also observe everybody while I’m sitting here, but, they’re not gonna let crazy people here, I mean the people that showed up, we all are like-minded and we’re just peaceful people, just leave us alone, and we won’t do anything. It’s pretty simple.”
After the multiple checkpoints and metal detectors and finally inside in the main convention center hallway, I could have been on a cruise in the Caribbean—older men and women in t-shirts, baseball caps, Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and flip flops buying books at the book table, talking in hushed voices near the windows, laughter now and then coming from the end of the hall.
There was a book, cheaply-bound, as if it were ordered last night from Kinko’s, of all the cartoon submissions: $50, cash only.
Most of the political cartoons lined the halls: all depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, many of them violent, most of them amateur, like a middle school cartoon contest but for grownups, grownups convinced that the religion Muhammad founded is the biggest threat facing the United States.
One cartoon featured a minimalist cartoon desert and, in the foreground, Muhammad suspended in the fetal position on a pencil skewering his entire body; another had “Islam, religion of peace” written across a man juggling severed heads; another featured Muhammad wearing a green turban with eyes that look bewitched, open-jawed snakes coming out of his neck; another had a grumpy Muhammad in black turban holding a bloody, serrated knife, captioned: “when it comes to religion… I’ve got the edge.”
“Dom the Conservative,” a 5’6 brunette in a form-fitting white lace shirt, said: “I’m here for a multitude of reasons. The number one is I believe that Islam is a political and religious ideology—the most dangerous thing to our country right now.
“It’s intolerant, it’s hateful, and even racist at times if you study history. But, why I’m here at this event in protest of what Islam, the Quran, and sharia law do to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I’m here to represent the victims of Islam.”
Sitting near the back of the hall, backs up against the wall in a corner, I found Bosch Fawstin and his friend Kfir Alfia. “I’m a cartoonist,” Bosch told me— “I entered one of the drawings.” Where are you from? “America.”
While I was waiting to hear a location a bit more specific, Fawstin’s friend Kfir leaned in: “I’ll tell you why I’m here. The reason I’m here—Islam needs to lighten up a little bit.”
Fawstin nodded emphatically—“I was raised Muslim, in Albania but I am no longer Muslim—now, it’s Ayn Rand. I went from the most conservative religion on earth to a philosophy created by a woman. Maybe there’s still a little bit of Islam left in me because when I found out Ayn Rand was a woman I was shocked. A woman wrote this? I thought it was ‘Ian’ Rand. So, I was surprised.”
Fawstin’s cartoon, one of the more simple drawings, won the contest later. It was a pencil sketch of a bearded, Wolverine-esque Muhammad saying “You can’t draw me!” and a cartoonist’s hand responding, “That is why I draw you.”
“We are here for freedom. Everything else is smear.”
“We are here for free speech. Everything else is smear.”
“We are here for freedom of conscience. Everything else is smear.”
“We are here for individual rights. Everything else is smear.”
The conference had finally begun, and Pamela was on stage, her voice transformed from the confrontational New Yorker we see so often in her television spots into something softer, something rehearsed, a speech perfected over time in its rhythms and its pauses.
“Understand that the reason why we’re in this room, in this venue, on this day, is because not a week after the Charlie Hebdo jihad slaughter American Muslim groups held a conference in this room called the ‘Stand with the Prophet’ conference against Islamophobic speech,” Geller said. “What is Islamophobic speech? If you oppose jihad terror, you’re Islamophobic.”
Geller continued, explaining that the battle was upon us, that Sharia law was encroaching across America, that Islam was not a faith but an ideology, an ideology of hatred and violence that must be stopped:
I have been doing this work since 2004. I can tell you… at the beginning everybody was like ‘yeah we’re gonna take no prisoners, smoke em out!’ and I don’t know what happened. Everybody abandoned the field because they couldn’t take the abuse from the media, from their friends. Look, nobody wants to be called racist even though—Islam is not a race—what, I’m gonna say that shahada, and all of a sudden my race is gonna change? Cuckoo. But this, this is the narrative, the whole adopting of the civil rights narrative—this is a destructive narrative that is advanced at every level—in academia, in the public schools—you have to fight, you know what’s going on in public schools, you see it happening in Texas, the proselytizing! We must fight.
This was America’s burden: this fight, this struggle against an alien invasion slowly encroaching on American soil.
Geert Wilders, the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim Dutch member of parliament, rushed to the microphone, needing, for this crowd, no introduction: “it’s great to be in Texas, the Lone Star state: that one star on the Texas flag represents all the free world needs today! Defiance, pride, and independence. Thank you, Texas!
“And of course it is no coincidence that we are in Garland, Texas tonight. They want to prohibit cartoons, books, and film which they find insulting. And our answer is: don’t mess with Texas.”
The audience jumped to their feet: clapping, whooping, whistling. “Texas,’ Sam Houston said long ago, ‘has yet to learn from any submission, come what may.’ May his words inspire us all today.”
The contest prize, what we were ostensibly all here for, was given to Fawstin, Geller presenting a check to him for $12,500: $10,000 from AFDI and $2,500 more from Breitbart.
After the check was presented, the speeches were over, and the conference ended on a high note for attendees. Geller thanked us for coming and dismissed us; attendees stood up slowly, stretching, talking to each other, walking around the room to get a second look at the cartoons on display.
It was no more than 5 minutes later when, standing in the hall with 3 or 4 others, a man in camouflage ran up to us shouting, telling us to get back inside the conference room.
And then we were in the middle of a breaking news event.