PHOENIX —About 250 mostly armed anti-Muslim demonstrators — many wearing T-shirts bearing a profanity-laced message denouncing Islam — faced-off against a crowd of roughly the same size defending the faith in front of a Phoenix mosque Friday night.
Demonstrators yelled and taunted one another across a line of police separating the two sides but violence did not break out.
Jon Ritzheimer, the organizer of the protest, called it a patriotic sign of resistance against what he deemed the tyranny of Islam in America.
“I would love to see more of these events pop up in other states,” Ritzheimer said. “I want fellow patriots standing right here next to me. This isn’t about me. Everybody’s been thinking it, I’m just saying it.”
Usama Shami, president of the Islamic center, said he was not surprised by the event.
“This is not new. Hatred, bigotry, racism — that’s old. It’s the same thing,” he said. “No different from Nazis or neo-Nazis. They don’t believe society should be multicultural or multiethnic. They think everyone should believe like them, I guess.”
Ritzheimer began demonstrating after two Phoenix residents carrying assault rifles were killed by police outside a Muhammed cartoon-drawing contest in suburban Dallas earlier this month. In the days following the shooting, Ritzheimer began making and selling the T-shirts. Nearly two weeks ago, he organized a protest at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, where a few dozen others joined him.
Ritzheimer said he’s received threats from terrorists on Twitter, and that he and his family no longer feel safe in their home. He said he asked participants to bring guns in the Facebook invite as a precautionary measure. Some brought two or three firearms, from pistols and revolvers to shotguns and assault rifles. Ritzheimer carried a 9mm Glock 26. Some wore military fatigues.
The event kicked off with Ritzheimer inviting his supporters to draw cartoons of Muhammed and bashing the religion’s prohibition against creating depictions of the Islamic prophet.
“I can’t let my kids grow up in a society where tyranny is reigning over. I’ve got ISIS posting my address. This is terrorism at its finest, right here in America,” he said. “My family has to go into hiding.”
Paul Griffin, a Phoenix resident, said that the rally exposed Islam as contrary to American rights.
“They want us to cower in fear because of a cartoon that somebody drew? What the hell happened to this country?” Griffin said. “I don’t care if I offend anyone. This is America.”
Ali Yoseph, a 28-year-old Phoenix resident, was among the protesters opposing Ritzheimer.
“We’re all American here,” he said. “If this was a Christian church right here, or if this was a Jewish church, I swear to you, I would be right here to protect it. Because this in the end is a house of God.”
His brother, 26-year-old Ya Ali Yoseph, said that while he found the drawing of Muhammed objectionable, he hoped people would gain understanding about Islam and its practices.
“Of course it’s offensive,” he said of the cartoon drawing that took place. “We have 124,000 prophets in Islam. Prophet Muhammed was the last prophet. We don’t draw pictures of our prophets. Jesus was a prophet. We don’t draw pictures of Jesus… In the Koran, there’s a quote that says, Allah made you different groups, different tribes, different races, so you can go and learn from each other, so we can come closer to each other. This is a test, to see how you treat people of different color, different ethnicity.”
As the event wound down around 9:30 p.m., Ritzheimer told the crowd that he felt he is now forced into hiding because of his opposition to Islam, and the threats he said his family has received.
“Was this worth it? You know what, let’s ask our founding fathers if it was worth it for them to sign the Declaration of Independence. They jeopardized their families. They put their families into jeopardy, if they would have been caught… Yeah, it was worth it. We have to draw the line now.” Ritzheimer said. “(Am I) done with the cause? No. I can never be done with the cause. I’m still a patriot.”
Although the event was marked by inflammatory messages and a tangible divide between the two sides, it wasn’t without some reconciliation.
Jason Leger, a Phoenix resident wearing one of the profanity-laced shirts, accepted an invitation to join the evening prayer inside the mosque, and said the experience changed him.
“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,” Leger said. “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 believe.”
Paul Griffin, who had earlier said he didn’t care if his t-shirt was offensive, assured a small crowd of Muslims at the end of the rally that he wouldn’t wear it again.
“I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt,” he told one man while shaking his hand and smiling. “I won’t wear it again.”
Usama Shami, the president of the ICCP, invited anyone to join him and the 800 members of the mosque for a prayer.
“A lot of them, they’ve never met a Muslim, or they haven’t had interactions with Muslims,” he said. “A lot of them are filled with hate and rage. Maybe they went to websites that charged them with this hatred. So when you sit down and talk like rational people, without all these slogans, without being bigots, without bringing guns, they will find out that they’re talking to another human.”
Wyloge is part of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting in Phoenix.