Hundreds demonstrated on Friday night at an anti-Islam “free speech event” near the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona—a mosque targeted for protest because the two gunmen who attacked a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas earlier this month had attended services there.
Organizer Jon Ritzheimer’s protest drew a sizeable crowd of counter-protesters, and police quickly separated the two sides using barricades and, in places, lines of police officers running down the center of the road. There were no reports of violence. According to the Arizona Republic, few of the mosque’s worshippers attended Friday evening’s services, with some opting to join the counter-protest, and the crowd seemed evenly split:
The number of counter-protesters closely matched those who came in response to a Facebook event that encouraged people to bring weapons and American flags to the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix during its Friday prayer time. The event also advertised a contest to “draw Muhammed,” an act offensive to many Muslims, but the contest was quickly forgotten amid the rally.
The Washington Post reported that the anti-Islam protesters were “mostly armed” and that “many [were] wearing T-shirts bearing a profanity-laced message denouncing Islam.” The shirts said “FUCK ISLAM,” and Ritzheimer says he has been making and selling them since shortly after Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi drove from Phoenix to Garland, Texas to attack the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon show organized by Pamela Geller. Simpson and Soofi shot a guard outside the event (the guard survived) before they were killed by police.
The contentious nature of Ritzheimer’s protest on Friday didn’t prevent some productive interaction between the two sides. From the Washington Post:
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.”
Geller’s Garland event also made news in Washington D.C. this week as transit officials in the nation’s capital opted to ban all “issue-oriented” advertising through the end of 2015 rather than accept Geller ads featuring entries from the “Draw Muhammad” contest.
While D.C. buses have previously carried incendiary ads from Geller, including images of Hitler alongside Muslim leaders, the city decided in this case to follow New York City’s lead and ban all political ads rather than accept submissions from Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative. One official quoted by the Post said he feared the images of Muhammad would make the city’s vehicles and stations into “terrorist targets.”