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Police officers block an intersection near the Curtis Culwell Center after a shooting outside the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative which was being held at the facility in Garland, Texas May 3, 2015. (Photo: Reuters/Mike Stone)

Anti-Muslim Event in Texas Ends in Gunfire, Two Deaths

Organizers of the art contest had been criticized for provocatively  inviting people to depict Prophet Muhhamad in competition for cash prizes

Jon Queally

An exchange of gunfire outside a provocative anti-Muslim event in the Texas suburb of Garland on Sunday evening resulted in the death of two suspected gunmen, the injury of one security guard, and a firestorm of  rhetoric over a controversial art contest which invited entrants to depict the Prophet Muhammad in competition for cash prizes.

As the New York Times reports:

The shooting began shortly before 7 p.m. outside the Curtis Culwell Center at an event organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an anti-Islam organization based in New York.

"As today’s Muhammad Art Exhibit event at the Curtis Culwell Center was coming to an end" the Facebook posting said, "two males drove up to the front of the building in a car. Both males were armed and began shooting at a Garland I.S.D. security officer."

The Garland Independent School District said in a statement that its security officer, Bruce Joiner, was shot in the ankle and taken to a hospital. He was later released.

The police, fearing that the gunmen’s car might contain an explosive device, dispatched a bomb squad and evacuated the center and nearby businesses, including a Walmart.

Though it could not be confirmed overnight what the motivations of the alleged gunmen may have been, ABC News early on Monday reported that one of the individuals had been identified by law enforcement:

One of the suspects in the shooting in Garland, Texas, late Sunday has been identified as Elton Simpson, an Arizona man who was previously the subject of a terror investigation, according to a senior FBI official.

Overnight and today FBI agents and a bomb squad were at Simpson's home in an apartment complex in north Phoenix where a robot is believed to be conducting an initial search of the apartment.

Officials believe Simpson is the person who sent out several Twitter messages prior to the attack on Sunday, in the last one using the hashtag #TexasAttack about half an hour before the shooting.

Though billed by its organizers as an event celebrating "free speech," critics argue the event was antagonistic and hateful towards Muslims by design.

According to Reuters:

The exhibit was organized by Pamela Geller, president of the [AFDI]. Her organization, which is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, has sponsored anti-Islamic advertising campaigns in transit systems across the country.

Organizers of the "Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest" said the event was to promote freedom of expression. They offered a $10,000 prize for the best artwork or cartoon depicting the Prophet, as well as a $2,500 "People's Choice Award."

Depictions of the Prophet Mohammad are viewed as offensive in Islam, and Western art that portrays the Prophet has sometimes angered Muslims and provoked threats and attacks from radicals.

In addition to Geller, the event in Garland was also attended by Geert Wilders, a rightwing Dutch lawmaker known for hateful and intolerant views of Islam and Muslims. Wilders was invited to give a speech which, according to the Associated Press, said in part, "Muhammad fought and terrorized people with the swords. Today, here in Garland, we fight Muhammad and his followers with the pen. And the pen, the drawings, will prove mightier than the sword."

Following events in Garland, journalist Glenn Greenwald, making it clear that just because the art contest is viewed as despicable and hateful by many, that does not mean critics like himself condone or justify the violence it may have provoked:

Given the nature of the event, the Guardian reports how a large security force was hired in advance:

The American Freedom Defense Initiative paid for 40 police officers to work as security at their Prophet Mohammed cartoon drawing competition, Dallas News reports, shedding light on how the gunmen who attacked the event were killed so quickly.

The paper, which had a reporter present described “thick security that included Garland police, school district security and private guards”.

It said the cost of hiring in the officers was $10,000, an expense which Pam Geller, the event’s organiser, described as “the high cost of freedom.”

Bridie Jabour, a Guardian journalist, also filed this explainer on the AFDI and Geller:

A co-founder of the group behind the contest to award $10,000 for the best cartoon depiction of Mohammed, is a New Yorker who runs a blog that campaigns to stop the “Islamification” of America.

Pamela Geller, used her blog Atlas Shrugs to declare “this is war” in the hours after the shooting of two gunmen at the contest, which had been organised by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group co-founded by Geller and Robert Spencer in 2010.

Geller, the winner of numerous awards from far right organisations such as the David Horowitz Freedom Center, is credited with coining the term “ground zero mega mosque” as part of highly publicised campaign against the development of community centre, which included a mosque, a few blocks from where the twin towers once stood.

She became politically active after the September 11 attacks and has told various newspapers she had never heard of Osama Bin Laden until the day of the attacks but started educating herself as a housewife living in Long Island raising four children. She eventually started a blog, Atlas Shrugs.

A prolific poster - the blog usually has between 10 and 15 posts per day - Gellar took to it soon after two armed gunmen were shot outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland in Garland, Texas.

Social media was predictably swarming with responses to the shooting under the hashtag #garlandattack, but journalist Murtaza Hussain suggested on Twitter that little of value could be learned from those trying to put the events in context in less than 140 characters:

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