By Luqman Patino –
More than a month has gone by since two gunmen from Phoenix opened fire and were then killed at the “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas. On May 27, a similar narrative emerged. This time, in front of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, gun-toting anti-Islam protesters hosted a rally and Muhammad drawing contest under the pretense of exercising their First and Second Amendment rights.
The venue for the protest was selected because the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix is believed to be where the two gunmen involved in the Texas shooting worshipped and visited. The president of the community center, Usama Shami, however, stated that these two gunmen hardly ever visited the Masjid.
The choice of venue itself created a new element to the event. Unlike the Garland event, organizers of this protest chose to hold their event outside of a place of worship on a day of significance for Muslims and around a time of prayer. Mosque representatives did not close the center but did encourage individuals to proceed with caution. Protesters were encouraged to bring firearms. As a result, a possible affront to the freedom of religion became an equally polarizing discussion.
The rally began around 6:15 p.m. An estimated 500 people attended, half supporting the anti-Islam rhetoric, and the other half in support of the local Muslim community. Many of the roads were closed off which made it difficult for many participants to join the rally. Helicopters flew overhead. Officers, many dressed in riot gear, created a barrier between both sides, taping off areas and lining up between the two groups. Every other officer faced the opposite direction, half facing one group and half facing the other. The rally itself reportedly cost Phoenix taxpayers an estimated $100,000 according to the local police department.
Jon Ritzheimer, the organizer of the protest, is a former Marine who says he doesn’t hold back from speaking his true feeling about Islam and is not shy about it. Ritzheimer, as well as some of his supporters, attended the rally wearing shirts that said “F*** Islam” in big bold letters. Ritzheimer claims that Islam is a violent religion and the two shooters at the Garland event did exactly what the religion instructed them to do. Ritzheimer has publically equated himself with the founding fathers of the United States.
People of faiths other than Islam, and belonging to other groups, came out in support of ICCP and its congregation. Many of these protesters were in high spirits and provided water to fellow protesters during the hot Phoenix evening. Their chants included, “God is love and not hate,” and they held up signs of peace and quotes by famous peace activists, such as Martin Luther King. There were also prayers conducted by local Christian congregations during the protest.
On the other side of the police divide, aside from profanity-laced attire, depictions of the prophet Muhammad and a slew of individuals carrying handguns and even assault rifles, there was also a sense of unity between protesters who felt their rights being contested by the American Muslim community. As Ritzheimer made an appearance, many thanked him for organizing the event. Ritzheimer walked through the crowd showing his appreciation for the support he received from those attending the protest.
Many of the protesters were there also to practice their Second Amendment right, the right to bear firearms, necessary for the security of a free state. Some protesters came in full army fatigues and carried rifles as though prepared for combat rather than defense. Ritzheimer claims that many verses in the Qur’an incite violence and promote violent Jihad. But when it was suggested to him that many Muslims believe that these verses are for self-defense only, Ritzheimer replied, “They’re not projected in self-defense in any way shape or form…they’re defending against people that are non-believers, anybody is a threat to them that doesn’t believe in their way of life.”
Paul Griffin, who had his pistol in his loosely fitting holster while wearing his F*** Islam shirt, explained his reason for being at the protest. “This is about free speech alright, I don’t care what God anybody prays to, but when they tell me I can’t exercise my First Amendment right because their religion forbids it, f*** that,” said Griffin. “I don’t hate Islam, I don’t know anything about Islam, I just hate being told that I don’t have the right of my freedom of expression because their God prevents it.”
Ritzheimer is no stranger to the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix. Shami said he has had trouble with Ritzheimer in the past and is surprised that this time around he is getting much more attention. Shami disagrees strongly with Ritzheimer’s view of all followers of Islam being inherently violent and criticizes his approach in dealing with the situation. “So he’s showing up with guns, isn’t that an irony?” said Shami.
Shami does not believe that Ritzheimer is sincere in his rally for free speech. “This guy is a bigot, people have to call him what he is, he’s a bigot, he’s racist and everyone should call him by his name,” said Shami.
While tempers flared on both sides of what has garnered national attention and become a national debate, the people stuck in the middle are the congregation of ICCP. Community member Abdul Aziz said of the potential for backlash toward the community itself, “I don’t see myself at risk, the reason is these things are normal.” Aziz also said, “We’re told things are going to happen, there will be resistance to our teachings and practices, so usually we expect that and peacefully handle it and we just sit back and watch.”
The protest came not long after ICCP and another area mosque received violent threats in the mail stating that leaders, families of leaders and members of the community would be targeted. An FBI investigation of those threats is underway.
While Ritzheimer continued to suggest that the event was simply an exercise of freedom of speech, as the event came to a close, the line became increasingly blurry between whether this was a nonviolent rally in support of freedom of speech, one that encouraged people to bring their weapons, or simply a protest against the religion of Islam. The two local businesses where Ritzheimer and his group had planned to meet before and after the rally closed during those times. Wild Bill’s Saloon, a bar nearby the mosque, where an after-party had been planned, closed and placed a sign that read: “Out of respect for our community, our customers, and our employees – Wild Bill’s Saloon will be closed this evening. Thank you for your patronage. We will see everybody back here tomorrow.”
The protest remained peaceful and no arrests were reported. In some cases, the event had a transformative effect. The Washington Post reported that one protester, Jason Leger of Phoenix, clad in a profanity-laced shirt, accepted an invitation to enter the mosque during its evening prayer. “It was something I’ve never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along. They made me feel welcome, you know. I just think everybody’s points are getting misconstrued, saying things out of emotion, saying things they don’t mean,” Leger was quoted in the Post.
In the week following the protest, Ritzheimer expressed concern for his safety, telling reporters that he has been targeted, harassed, hacked and threatened. He suggested plans to move due to concerns over the safety of himself and his family. In a Facebook video post on June 3, Ritzheimer said, “I’m taking cover right now, during a verbal firefight, but you can bet I’m going to be returning fire.” Ritzheimer continued to express his frustration with the government regarding threats toward him and his family, saying, “No one should feel threatened like this in this country…not for anything.” Ritzheimer also described plans for a website to continue his “fight.”
Despite Ritzheimer’s efforts to bolster support for his cause, it would appear that the local Phoenix community wants little to do with his group.
The Monday following the rally, a coalition of local interfaith groups held their own rally, the “Love Is Stronger Than Hate Rally,” and held it inside the mosque where Ritzheimer’s rally took place outdoors. The rally drew hundreds of people of all faiths who brought flowers to the mosque as a sign of peace and solidarity.