By Mehlaqa Samdani
Many people around the U.S. heaved a collective sigh of relief when the protest organized by armed bikers outside a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona ended without incident last week. And yet the anti-Muslim rally and the events that led up to it shed light on critical gaps, which if left unattended will continue to fuel inter-communal conflict here in the U.S.
Last Friday, approximately two hundred and fifty armed bikers dressed in provocative, anti-Muslim apparel protested in front of the Islamic Society of Phoenix against the ‘tyranny of Islam in America’. Specifically, according to Jon Ritzheimer, an Iraq war veteran and organizer of the event, they had gathered to protest the actions of Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, former mosque attendees, who earlier last month attempted to attack an event in Texas where participants were invited to draw cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. Police killed both men before they entered the venue.
While the bikers’ protest in Arizona generated a lot of controversy, the incident led to at least two favorable outcomes:
First, the anti-Muslim protestors were met with an almost equal number of counter-protestors of all faiths who rallied in support of the worshippers at the Phoenix mosque, epitomizing the solidarity and support Muslim-Americans have experienced time and again from their non-Muslim compatriots. Second, at least one anti-Muslim protestor had a change of heart when he accepted the invitation extended by mosque administrators to pray inside the mosque:
“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.’’ Another protestor vowed never to wear his Islam-bashing t-shirt again.
While last week’s protest ended well, what are some steps that can be taken to prevent future potential for violence?
Convene intra-Muslim dialogues: Muslim community leaders in the U.S. currently face a two-pronged challenge—to counter the lure of ISIS among young community members (Elton Simpson had ‘linked himself to ISIS’ shortly before attacking the cartoon event in Garland, Texas) and to counter the $50 million Islamophobic network devoted to demonizing and provoking Muslims here in the U.S. Both entities (ISIS and Islamophobic groups) point to each other as their raison d’etre and are further emboldened by the actions of the other. It is therefore important for Islamic centers and Muslim-led organizations around the country to organize critical programming that prevents the radicalization of youth and to also convene discussions around finding creative ways to respond to anti-Muslim provocations.
Address anti-Muslim bias in the U.S. military: Ritzheimer’s background as an Iraq war veteran drew attention to the fact that anti-Islam training in the U.S. military is a problem. A Marine friend of mine recently confided that ‘anti-Islam’ training over the past decade had been necessary for combat effectiveness as the U.S. fought wars in two Muslim-majority countries. A majority of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have now returned home only to find Muslims as their neighbors. In the interest of strengthening and securing American communities, government agencies responsible for the reintegration of veterans should develop anti-bias training programs to address the issue.
Create connections beyond the choir: The shift in attitude among some protestors underscores the importance of greater inter-communal engagement —6 in 10 Americans have not met a Muslim and polls indicate that simply knowing a Muslim can alter perceptions favorably. A 2015 HuffPo Poll found that 55% of Americans harbored unfavorable views of Islam. The challenge for interfaith groups around the country is to reach out to the more conservative elements within their respective faith communities and find ways to include them in these dialogues so as to increase impact. By inviting protestors to join worshippers inside, the mosque in Phoenix set a wonderful example for Muslim communities across the country whereby direct, non-adversarial engagement with right-wing groups defused an otherwise explosive situation.
As anti-Muslim provocations increase around the country, let us hope that many more Muslims follow the directions of the Prophet Mohammad:
“Be conscious of God wherever you are. Follow the bad deed with a good one to erase it, and engage others with beautiful character.”