Phoenix 'Muhammed' cartoon rally outside mosque

Friday's rally took place outside the Islamic Center, where two men shot and killed by police outside a Texas 'draw prophet Muhammed' contest early this month had worshipped.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File
This May 4, 2015 file photo shows the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix.

Worshippers attending Friday prayers at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona, may have to cope not only with cartoons of the prophet Muhammed, but also with gun-carrying demonstrators if a planned Friday evening rally takes place.

Rally organizer Jon Ritzheimer, who states on his Facebook profile that he is employed by the Dysfunctional Veterans Society, will host the event, billed as a “peaceful protest.” The gathering is planned for 6:15 p.m. local time Friday, according to the Facebook invitation, to coincide with the Muslims' attendance at their Friday evening worship services.

This particular center was chosen by Mr. Ritzheimer because it is the former site of worship for Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, two men who were killed by police near Dallas May 3 after they opened fire outside a building where a contest featuring cartoons of the prophet Muhammad was taking place. (Many Muslims consider images of Muhammad to be blasphemous.)

That contest was organized by Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and inspired by the January, 2015, killings at Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, known for featuring cartoons of the Islamic prophet.

The Facebook post promoting the Phoenix event reads, in part:

“ROUND 2!!!!!!! This will be a PEACEFUL protest in front of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix AZ. This is in response to the recent attack in Texas where 2 armed terrorist, with ties to ISIS, attempted Jihad. Everyone is encouraged to bring American Flags and any message that you would like to send to the known acquaintances of the 2 gunmen. This Islamic Community Center is a known place that the 2 terrorist frequented. People are also encouraged to utilize there second amendment right at this event just incase our first amendment comes under the much anticipated attack."

Meanwhile, the rally has sparked concern and a planned Twitter counter-protest from Muslim supporters.

At 7 p.m. Eastern time Friday, the hashtags #NotMyAmerica and #PHxMosque will take to Twitter with the support of the Arab-American Anti-Descrimination Committee (ADC).

Some Twitter users have already begun posting their concerns.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, PhD, president and director of The Minaret of Freedom in Maryland says in an interview, “I guess the biggest effect on the Muslim community is the psychological one of apprehension.”

“The community is, for the most part, appreciative of the value of freedom of speech,” Dr. Ahmad says. “However, we are well aware that when you do something this provocative it may anger someone. Not necessarily someone radicalized, but maybe just someone mentally unstable. Unfortunately, by provoking somebody into violence, such an act would be used to broadly smear the Muslim community as well as Islam itself.”

That the Facebook invitation encourage attendees to bear arms is a source of concern for both the Muslim and law enforcement communities.

Dr. Jeffrey Fox, a homeland security expert from Rocky Mount, Va., warns in an interview, "It's never OK to use force to express your displeasure over someone else's use of their First Amendment rights."

From a security standpoint this type of event generally requires an all-hands-on-deck, multiple-agency operation, engaging local and state police as well as Homeland Security, FBI Joint Terrorism Taskforce, and local FBI, according to Command Sergeant Major James A. McDaniel (Retired) of Dayton, Ohio, with the Homeland Security Speakers Bureau. Mr. McDaniel is a special operations operator and planner with level-three (out of five levels) Homeland Security certification.

“I spent 26 years of my life trying to protect those Constitutional rights [of free speech and to bear arms],” says Mr. McDaniel. “Now, in my humble opinion, I would say that they do have the right to [carry weapons at the event] but, I would not personally do something that it seems to me like they are flaunting those rights to instigate an incident that we don’t need. I understand that if people are going to that event they want to protect themselves and they have the right to do that but it’s putting a lot of extra strain on law enforcement.”

McDaniel adds, “There’s a fine line between hardcore and stupid.”

Mr. Ahmad is also troubled by the encouragement to bear arms. “I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, but bringing a gun to a demonstration sends a very, very bad message," he says. "Especially a demonstration whose theme is hatefulness.”

Abed Ayoub, Legal & Policy Director for the Arab-American Anti-Descrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington, D.C., says in an interview that “those men in Texas were fringe from the other side. Nobody in the Muslim community supports what they did.”

“This [Phoenix rally] is just another clear example of the Islamaphobia that we have in the country and it’s being permitted to happen,” he adds. “These individuals are dangerous and as we’ve seen in the past so many years the most extreme incidents of domestic terrorism come from white men and white individuals and these guys fit that mold,” Mr. Ayoub says. “So there’s definitely a fear that they could turn this into a violent episode and injure members of our community. This should not be tolerated. It has nothing to do with free speech. It has nothing to do with Second Amendment. It has everything to do with intimidation.”

Despite the potential risks, Ayoub says he would advise worshippers and their children to attend their regular prayer service this evening, “To tell them to stay home would [be] like telling a Christian not to go to church on Sunday or a Jewish person not to go to temple on Friday. They have a right to worship.”  

Ahmad says he would take a different path. "I would be tempted to tell people to stay away, but what I would do instead is to turn on the speaker system so those outside could hear the sermon about the importance of love and the [exhortation to] people who believe in God to do Godly things."

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