A “Freedom of Speech” protest was held in front of a Phoenix mosque Friday evening, with anti-Islam protesters gathering to demonstrate outside a mosque following a “draw Muhammad” contest.
The rally was to start about the same time evening prayers were taking place inside the center.
The event kicked off with encouraging anti-Islam supporters to draw cartoons of Muhammed, similar to the event in Texas, as an act of rebellion against the religion’s rule against creating depictions of the Islamic prophet.
About 250 mostly armed anti-Islam demonstrators — many wearing T-shirts reading “F*** ISLAM” — clashed with a crowd of roughly the same size holding a counter-demonstration to defend the faith while some were holding “Love Your Neighbor” signs.
While tensions were high as around 500 demonstrators yelled and taunted one another across a line of police separating the two sides, violence did not break out and a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police department said there were no arrests or reports of injuries.
Jon Ritzheimer, the organizer of the protest and a former Marine, called it a patriotic sign of resistance against what he deemed the tyranny of Islam in America.
“I want this to be about pushing out the truth about Islam,” Ritzheimer told KPNX. “I’ve read the Koran three times … the ones flying the planes into the tower, those are Muslims following the book as it is written.”
“I would love to see more of these events pop up in other states,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “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.”
Ritzheimer began demonstrating after two Muslims carrying assault rifles were killed by police after trying to invade a Muhammed cartoon-drawing contest in suburban Dallas earlier this month.
One of the gunmen frequently worshipped at the north Phoenix mosque where Friday’s rally was held.
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.
In the Facebook invite to the event, Ritzheimer told participants to feel free and exercise their Second Amendment rights and bring guns as a precautionary measure. Some brought two or three firearms, from pistols and revolvers to shotguns and assault rifles, while Ritzheimer carried a 9mm Glock 26.Usama Shami, president of the Islamic center, said he was not surprised by the event and invited anyone to join him and the 800 members of the mosque for a prayer.
“This is not new. Hatred, bigotry, racism — that’s old. It’s the same thing. 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.
A lot of them, they’ve never met a Muslim, or they haven’t had interactions with Muslims. 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.”
After the event wound down at 9:30 p.m., some anti-Islam protesters changed their mind.
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. 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.”
But for others, Islam remains a threat to America and personal safety. At the end of the night, Ritzheimer told the crowd that he’s received threats from terrorists on Twitter, and that he and his family no longer feel safe in their home.
“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. (Am I) done with the cause? No. I can never be done with the cause. I’m still a patriot.”