A group of bikers in Arizona are planning to hold a protest outside an Islamic center on Friday -- but local clergy hope to head them off with a message of inclusivity.
The bikers' protest, dubbed “Freedom of Speech Rally Round II,” is scheduled to take place outside the the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix. The name is a reference to Pamela Geller’s “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, that was attacked by two gunmen earlier in May. The shooters who ambushed Geller’s event had attended the Phoenix mosque, Jon Ritzheimer, who organized the protest, wrote on Facebook. He encouraged protesters to bring American flags and “any message that you would like to send to the known acquaintances of the 2 gunmen.”
Before the mosque demonstration, protesters plan to meet in a nearby Denny’s parking lot for a “Muhammad cartoon contest.” They will gather at the Islamic center at 6:15 p.m. that evening, according to Facebook.
As of Thursday afternoon, more than 200 people had RSVPd for the protest on Facebook.
Usama Shami, president of the community center, knew about the protest from Phoenix police and the FBI and said he respected the bikers’ right to demonstrate, he told local station 12 News.
"Everybody has a right to be a bigot. Everybody has a right to be a racist. Everybody has a right to be an idiot," Shami told the station.
The mosque would not change its schedule in light of the protest, he added. "It will be the same as every Friday evening and we're going to tell our members what we've told them before: not to engage them," Shami told 12 News. "They're not looking for an intellectual conversation. They're looking to stir up controversy and we're not going to be a part of it."
Rev. Erin Tamayo, executive director of the Phoenix-based interfaith group Arizona Faith Network, told The Huffington Post on Thursday that her organization was working with the Islamic center's imam to develop a strategy to counter the bikers' protest. Local clergy are planning a solidarity vigil Monday night organized jointly by Arizona Faith Network and the United Church of Christ Southwest Conference. The vigil was initially planned for Friday but was rescheduled because of safety concerns, Tamayo said.
"I realize that we’re not going to stop these horrible things from happening," she said. "But if there's something that we could to do help it would be to spread a more positive message of love for our Muslim brothers and sisters."
Jewish educator and activist Lee Weissman, who lives in California and goes by the online name "Jihadi Jew," encouraged members of his own faith to stand with Muslim worshippers in Phoenix:
The Islamic Community Centers of Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona reportedly received anonymous letters over Memorial Day weekend threatening to kill the imams and their families if they do not "repent and turn to Christ" from the "countless demons of Islam,” according to The Arizona Republic.
The letters also threatened "burning to the ground" of American mosques, saying: "I can see entire Muslim communities destroyed from Detroit to California. You should abandon your properties and go back home where ever that is!"
"Our people are watching you and patrolling your mosque," the letters warned.
Friday's protest could turn violent, noted the Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University-based research project on Islamophobia -- especially if any of the bikers arrive armed:
The possibility of violence increases when armed demonstrators swarm a group of people they dislike. For Ritzheimer and his fellow bikers, Islam is a religion that inspires violence among its followers. Muslims are a dangerous threat. At this latest protest in Phoenix, Geller’s supporters are taking what — in their minds — is the logical next step: possibly resorting to violence.
Tamayo echoed these concerns and encouraged any potential counterprotesters not to go to the mosque Friday evening, saying, "I do think it could become a violent situation."
Ritzheimer, who says he is a Marine, wrote on the event’s Facebook page that the protest would be peaceful and had no agenda other than to exercise freedom of speech. But his Facebook photos show him wearing a t-shirt that reads “Fuck Islam,” which will also be on sale at Friday’s demonstration.
This piece has been updated to reflect the rescheduled solidarity vigil.