PHOENIX, Arizona — They gathered under the watchful eye of wary law enforcement and the mosque’s neighbors, both curious and anxious: armed participants for a “Muhammad Cartoon Contest,” members of the mosque’s community and their partners and masked members of the local anarchist group.
On the north side of the street, many of the men waiting for the contest in black, denim, or camouflage carried both handguns and rifles. On the south side of the street youthful counter-protest organizers passed out water and blue signs with handwritten Bible verses from the New Testament.
As the shouting escalated beneath the engine noise of omnipresent police and news helicopters, Phoenix police stretched yellow tape between the two sides and filled the gap with a line of officers in riot gear.
A few hours in, one protester in a pastel pink tie-dye tore pages from a Quran and stuffed them in her mouth while the college student next to her threw the rest of the book on the ground, screaming into a megaphone: “You do not need this book, this book of lies, this book of hatred! Look, Muslims, look at your book, it’s been ripped, it’s been defiled—you are pigs, you are phoney Muslims.”
“Shame on you!” chanted protesters on the other side.
On both sides young men with visible tattoos visible pushed toward each other.
It was the perfect setting for tensions to break, but unlike the climax of a Hollywood Western, this evening showdown on a hot, bright Southwestern street never broke into violence. Instead, as the skies grew darker and the contest failed to materialize, participants on both sides began to drift back through the barricades toward parking lots a few blocks away until the noise finally fizzled out.
Yet speaking by phone the morning after, contest organizer Jon Ritzheimer said he considered the event to be a success, explaining that the much anticipated cartoon contest had actually been held before the rally at the mosque, where the focus was, as it should have been, on freedom of speech.
“The media wanted more confrontation but that’s how I wanted it to go and it went peaceful,” Ritzheimer said. “We were able to show that there are people out there who think that tyranny’s OK and they were a prime example that our First Amendment is under attack.”
Ritzheimer compared the Muslim community’s responsibility for actions of extremists groups to those of criminal organizations.
“You catch these bank robbers, the driver of the car is guilty by association and that’s how I’m looking at Islam,” Ritzheimer said. “They are driving the car and we need to hold them accountable the same way we’d hold the driver of a getaway car. That’s how I’m looking at this, they’re not holding their own accountable.”
Founded in the early 1980s, the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, or ICCP on its webpage and social media accounts, where it denounces ISIS, includes refugees whose homes became unsafe because of active support as translators for the U.S. military.
“We have deep roots in the community, we have good relationship with a lot of people,” said Usama Shami, ICCP president. “We have a lot of friends from different churches and synagogues.”
Those friends include Redemption Church Pastor Jim Mullins who works with interfaith communities after struggling with his own views about Muslims after 9/11.
“I can imagine it would be quite difficult to want to worship in peace and to be afraid to go to your place of worship,” said Mullins.
Then Elton Simpson, 30, and Nadir Hamid Soofi, 34, were shot dead outside another “Muhammad Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas, on May 3 while trying to attack that event. Suddenly ICCP became the focus of unwelcome attention as the two gunmen’s local mosque.
For Ritzheimer that attention has taken the form of walking the streets around the mosque waving an American flag and wearing a T-shirt that said, “F-ck Islam.” He’s also organized protests like the Freedom of Speech Rally Round II, a followup to a similar—but smaller—event on May 17.
“They wanted to do it again to get more media coverage,” Shami said, adding that law enforcement notified him of the second event and advised worshippers to not engage and even to stay away from the mosque. “We’re going to be doing what we did last time: We didn’t do anything—nobody was here.”
He also added the “Muhammad Cartoon Contest” component—another echo of the shooting in Garland, which was widely considered provocative because many Muslims consider images of the Prophet Muhammad offensive and even blasphemous.
Now Ritzheimer says fake social media accounts set up in his name by counter-protesters added to confusion about the event as well as raising his profile in a way that leaves him with long-term safety and fears. Ritzheimer said he’s now in talks with his supporters about setting up a GoFundMe account to either buy security cameras and self-defense training for his wife or to relocate his family.
What concerned both community members and law enforcement is that the event’s Facebook page encourages rally participants “to utilize there (sic) second amendment right at this event just incase our first amendment comes under the much anticipated attack.”
With the FBI already investigating recent threats against the mosque, Phoenix Police issued a written statement ahead of the event saying they would “have an appropriate presence” and citing their experience with protests related to SB-1070 and the Occupy movement.
“Dealing with groups of protesters and opposing views is not the difficult part,” the statement read. “Our goal and the real challenge are trying to anticipate unlawful activities that might occur in conjunction with these events.”
According to local news, additional surveillance equipment was also installed during the week.
Yet to community residents like Benjamin Artaga the event was unexpected. Stopping to listen on his way home, he said he found some of the words shouted through megaphones disturbing. “Your religion is disgusting, it is wicked—hated by God, God made hell for a reason,” some chanted. “I’m here to expose the religion that the religion of Islam will take you to hell,” screamed others, he recounted. “Fucking scumbags: all of you are fucking trash!”
“I just got off of work and then I seen all this, that’s crazy,” he said. “People are Christians and stuff like that and they’re all cussing, you know? Is that religion or what?” Argaga said.
“I don’t understand why people waste their energy in this right here, you know? I think it’s a waste of energy, people get heart attacks and strokes and stuff like that by getting all mad, you know?”
And so did some of the protesters on the north side of the street.
Islam is like any other group that has some problem members and “their own dirty laundry,” said Mike George, who along with his sidearm and rifle, brought a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag to the event. He was one of the protesters on Ritzheimer’s side of the street.
“I’m almost saddened to see there’s barriers between because there’s a lot of similarities going on,” George said. “I actually don’t have a problem with that mosque—the problem’s not underneath that moon,” he added, referring to the crescent moon that adorns most mosques, “it’s underneath our sun.”
The problem on both sides of the fence, he said, is “extremists just imposing things” on people who otherwise have a lot in common.
“The bottom line—this is a bigoted group and really the media, everyone should call them by their names: they’re bigots, they’re racists, and they’re hatists,” Shami said. “This is about violence—no matter how they try to justify what they’re doing.”
Shami also fears the real messages of his community will be lost in the noise of the protests.
“You know we’re focusing on this small group,” Shami said. “What’s missed is the support from the community—we’re getting a lot of support via email or phone calls or mail.”
The night before the event, Shami stayed up past 1:30 a.m. trying to respond to all of the emails, from New York, Massachusetts, Canada, Haiti—and Garland, Texas.
These are the voices Mullins wants amplified too.
“Freedom of speech is a real thing and so we want to use our opportunity of free speech to say that we love our Muslim neighbors,” Mullins said. “We need to make sure that the voices of love and friendship and the flourishing of the community are voices that are heard and not just voices of violence and antagonism.”
Even if it means taking a risk, he wants everyone at the event to someday realize what they have in common.
“We have concerns about safety, but we have greater concerns for love and that’s what’s moving us forward,” Mullins said. “All people are our neighbors and we would love to see a peaceful resolution to this and not just one side winning, all sides winning—I mean, I know that sounds pie in the sky but that’s what I’m praying for.”