PHOENIX: About 250 mostly armed anti-Muslim demonstrators — many wearing T-shirts bearing a profanity-laced message denouncing Islam — faced-off against a roughly equally sized crowd defending the faith in front of a Phoenix mosque Friday night.
Violence never broke out, but the clash was often heated, as demonstrators yelled and taunted one another across a line of police separating the two sides.
The event’s organizer drew a worldwide spotlight in recent days, as awareness grew on social media. Though actual attendance was far fewer, more than 1,400 people had said on a public Facebook invite that they would attend.
With the nation watching, Jon Ritzheimer, the organizer of the protest, said he wanted to see more demonstrations like his, calling 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 first began publicly demonstrating after two Phoenix residents carrying assault rifles were killed by police outside at 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. Some wore military fatigues.
“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.”
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.”
Wyloge is part of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting in Phoenix.