The first time you hear about a planned hate-rally outside a mosque, attended by armed bikers, you wonder: How did things get to this point? There were clearly signs or events building up to such an escalation, right?
Maybe it was the time Pamela Geller rolled into town to speak to a local Tea Party group, and encouraged attendees to bring weapons — since Arizona is infamously an “open-carry state.”
Maybe it was the time the state legislature passed an “anti-Shariah bill” — even though Muslims represent 1% of the state population, and there is no threat of a Shariah takeover.
Or maybe it was the time a group of hate-preachers showed up outside another Phoenix mosque, screaming epithets at worshippers and desecrating the Quran.
Or maybe it was the hate letters sent to several Phoenix mosques threatening to massacre worshippers while specifically mentioning board members and religious leaders.
Maybe this is all the culmination of an industry dedicated to spreading anti-Muslim hate, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — which has essentially become an acceptable form of bigotry in modern-day society.
Whatever the reason, the Phoenix Muslim community faced the reality of hate rearing its ugly head on May 29. The backdrop of this hate-filled event stems from a presumed guilt-by-association for the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix and two notorious one-time attendees of the mosque. A month earlier, two individuals were shot dead by Garland, Texas, police outside a “Draw Muhammad” contest hosted by Geller. These individuals purportedly drove from Phoenix in an attempt to attack the relatively unheralded gathering, opening fire and wounding a security guard.
Which Route Do We Take?
The Muslim community faced a unique decision when it came to this protest. Do we write this off as just a few crazed bigots and let it pass under the radar? Or do we take this to the public and risk giving the haters their much-desired 15 minutes? Although there were some in the community who wanted to do the former, we felt that it was imperative to choose the latter. It was time for a much-needed national conversation around hate and how it affects the Muslim community on a day-to-day basis.
There had already been a palpable sense of concern in the air: Two of the largest mosques — the Islamic Community Center of Tempe and the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix — received very specific threats of violence against their community earlier that week. An anonymous letter was sent to mosque leadership describing attacks against families and congregations while worshippers attended the mosque.
Even though Muslim institutions and organizations are accustomed to receiving hate mail and messages and tend to brush them off, things were different this time. These threats came on the heels of a thwarted terrorist attack against an enclave of Muslims in New York by an ordained minister and former Tennessee congressional candidate, Robert Doggart. He ran and lost as a fringe candidate, espousing hateful rhetoric, including the desire to hang President Barack Obama for treason. In the aftermath of Doggart’s loss, his ire focused on Muslims, as indicated on his blog. He was eventually arrested while attempting to link up with a militia in South Carolina to travel to the “Islamberg” community in upstate New York to carry out a violent attack. In his writings, he described a desire to burn down buildings and perhaps even commit mass murder, if need be.
Thankfully Doggart was arrested before he could carry out his horrific plan. However he made bail and will only serve up to five years based on a plea agreement. One can only imagine the sentencing he would have received if he were Muslim. But I digress.
In understanding the curve that Islamophobia has taken in the past few years, it is undeniable that there is an intersection between anti-Islam rhetoric along with an amping up of violent rhetoric. We see Geller invoke and encourage “open carry” at her events, she has even been featured on CNN as a “gun-rights advocate.” The most recent National Rifle Association convention held a well-attended session about “what to do if Islamic extremists seize control of your city.” Combine the ubiquitous gun-culture with the constant bombardment of Islamophobia across the airwaves and you have a formula for a new perceived enemy on the hallowed shores of America. And we start seeing the bitter fruits of this movement being harvested.
In January, a group of anti-Islam protesters gathered outside a fundraising event for the Islamic media organization SoundVision in Garland. Hundreds of demonstrators stood outside the event wearing lewd T-shirts and displaying banners with anti-Islam/anti-Shariah messages. The protest even had cameos by Geller and her companion in Islamophobia, Robert Spencer, who proceeded to rile the crowd up even further. As pictures began surfacing of the event, the most troubling revelation was that some protesters were visibly armed. Add to the fact that the event they were protesting was geared toward children, this highlights the unhinged nature of the protests and sets a disturbing precedent.
The worst possible example occurred in Chapel Hill, N.C., where three young Muslim students were killed “execution style” by their neighbor, Craig Hicks — an avid gun-collector with pictures of his guns plastered across his Facebook page the same way most people post pictures of their children. Although many media outlets attempted to paint this crime as a “parking dispute gone awry,” it is clear that hate played a role in the killings.
With these facts in mind, many in the Muslim community felt it was important to garner as much media attention to this as possible. My organization, CAIR-Arizona, held a press conference the day of the May 29 event, which was covered by MSNBC, CNN and CBS as well as local affiliates in Phoenix. Additionally, the event was covered globally, highlighting a level of hatred that many in the world are witnessing for the first time. Additionally, we worked closely with local mosques to ensure they were vigilant during this time of escalated rhetoric.
Hate Masquerading as Free Speech
Although the players within the Islamophobia industry are generally viewed as the “lunatic fringe,” that doesn’t mean they’re all stupid. In fact, the various leaders act as a support system for one another, helping develop their tactics and approaches. An example of this would be the legal support that attorney David Yerushalmi (author of anti-Shariah bills across the U.S.) lends to Geller whenever she faces a legal challenge in defaming Islam. When Geller’s hateful bus or subway ads are rejected by a transit authority, Yerushalmi is there to help provide a legal nightmare under the guise of “freedom of speech.”
Over time, many of these characters have been denounced by mainstream news media and political circles. The organizations led by Geller and Spencer have been labeled “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which in turn causes them to adapt their messaging. They can no longer merely say, “we hate Muslims,” because that would just be bigoted. Instead, they have rebranded themselves as “free speech activists” who are really out to protect the First Amendment. Similarly, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has evolved from an anti-Islam activist to a “women’s rights” activist, who just happens to make Islam her one and only target.
The same thing occurred with the Phoenix rally. After a media backlash against organizer John Ritzheimer, he changed his rhetoric from “we want Islam out of America” to “Oh … this isn’t an anti-Islam rally, it’s an anti-ISIS rally.” Similarly, an armed protest in Tucson is being re-branded as a “peace rally.” You truly cannot make this stuff up.
Rally Day Arrives
In the lead-up to the event, it became clear that there would be a groundswell of support for the Muslim community. Initially, we gave the advice to not engage with the protesters — as the thought of rabid bikers with guns seemed like a recipe for disaster.
Amid all the negativity came messages of hope and support both locally and beyond. We received word that there would be counter-protests organized by quite a few groups — religious and secular. They pledged their support and solidarity for the Muslim community, no matter the risk, and they were not taking “no” for an answer.
As the event drew nearer, the Phoenix Police Department and other law enforcement reached out to the mosque and Muslim organizations letting them know that they would be there to keep law and order. On the day of the rally, the police and media presence was very apparent. TV trucks lined up around the mosque, with national and local media attempting to get in on the story.
As the rally started, the haters came and did what was expected. There were many armed individuals brandishing their weapons proudly, including AR-15 rifles. Some in the protest wore “F**k Islam” T-shirts, which were being sold by the rally organizer. According to some media reports, actual militia groups calling themselves the Arizona Defense Initiative also took part.
Take a look at any video and photograph from the event and you will clearly see that hate is alive and well in America today. Growing up, we are instilled with the idea that bigotry ended with the civil rights movement. Then you see one of the prominent protesters at the rally wearing a T-shirt with a Nazi-inspired “SS” lightning-bolt insignia and you realize hate is still front and center in 2015. You see the lewd cartoons and obscene signs that protesters are holding with pride and wonder if the protection of a hate group’s free speech is respected more than a minority group’s right to worship. But then you see the love and support from counter-protesters.
Those who came in support of the Phoenix Muslim community far outweighed the number that came to protest and wreak havoc. There were religious groups from dozens of congregations, workers’ groups, anarchists, legal observers and others who came with a message of love and support. A few heated exchanges and skirmishes aside, the event came and passed without incident. A well-publicized story also emerged in which an individual named Jason Leger left the hate protest and actually came inside the mosque and prayed alongside the Muslims. Initially, he wore a “F**k Islam” shirt, but after talking to and meeting with Muslims, he said he would never do something like that again, out of respect.
After Ritzheimer and his crew of haters packed up and left is truly when the action began. There was a massive outpouring of support for the Muslim community from all over the world — from interfaith groups, secular groups, elected officials and people of conscience. For once, it seemed as if the vast majority of media coverage given to this circus was sympathetic to the Muslim community as well — and rightfully so.
Ritzheimer didn’t seem to handle this criticism very well — he somehow retreated from the media while continuing to make an embarrassment of himself. In the days after the event, he created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for “his family’s security.” His crowdfunding goal? $10 Million.
In his crowdfunding appeal, he also promised to use leftover funds to run for John McCain’s Senate seat. He resurfaced recently at a pro-Confederate Flag rally outside a Wal-Mart in Phoenix. As you can clearly see, we were dealing with a very stable individual all along. There do seem to be copycat Ritzheimers, however.
Although most in the public were disgusted by protesters’ display of hate, this also is seemingly serving as a galvanizing force for Islamophobes nationwide. Similar “free speech” protests have been announced in places like Arizona and New Hampshire. A rally in Charleston, S.C., was postponed after a white supremacist opened fire in a black church, leaving nine people dead.
The interfaith community came together just a few days later at the very same mosque for the “Love Is Stronger Than Hate” rally. It is rare to see a mosque overflowing with attendees on anything but a Friday afternoon, but this place was absolutely packed on a Monday night. We heard speeches from Jewish, Sikh and Christian religious leaders. One speaker, Rana Singh Sodhi, lost his brother, Balbir, to the first post-9/11 act of hate violence. It was moving to see someone who had been directly affected speak with such determination and with words of encouragement for the Muslim community.
One of the more poignant observations of the evening came from a local rabbi. He said, “If this were a synagogue or a church that was surrounded by armed protesters, there would be national outrage over this.”
The question we must ask ourselves is: “What steps can we take to combat hate once and for all?” Shows of interfaith solidarity like the peace rally are vital, but the time has come to move beyond surface-level interaction if we want to truly challenge structural bigotry in our society.
When it comes to Islamophobia, it is not just low-level activists like Ritzheimer or hate-mongers like Geller who are the problem. Armed activists outside a mosque or hate crimes against Muslims are merely the output of a larger system that is being supported on many levels. On a political level, many candidates are thriving and raising massive money off anti-Islam rhetoric. During the 2012 election, the Republican Party had a specific anti-Shariah plank in its party platform. Are those who stood up against hate ready to disincentivize politicians and media outlets spreading anti-Islam messages?
Are churches ready to denounce the Franklin Grahams and John Hagees of the world who poison countless minds with fear-mongering and divisiveness?
As we move past the event, there are definitely lessons to be learned. Firstly, it cannot be ignored that an overlap between gun culture and Islamophobia exists in our society. This is seen in the increase in armed protests as well as horrific acts carried out against individual Muslims, such as the Chapel Hill shooting. Next, it is important to bring light to the issue of Islamophobia — many people are unaware of the extent that individuals are willing to go to express their hate. Finally, we must come together and challenge structural bigotry of all kinds — whether it is racism, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia — if we are truly going to make a long-term impact in marginalizing the sources of hate within our society.
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.