There have been many reports about the armed, anti-Muslim protests in Phoenix, Arizona. But almost none of them have focused on the brave actions of one mosque, which invited protesters in to listen to evening prayers – and in doing so, transformed the views of those people.
Last Friday, about 250 mostly armed anti-Muslim demonstrators descended upon a Phoenix mosque. Many of them wore t-shirts with vitriolic, profane, and hateful messages towards Islam and Muslims. Opposite them, a counter-protest of about the same size. The scene was set for a potential outbreak of violence as the sides exchanged insults and taunts, separated only by a line of police.
For Ritzheimer, the organizer of the anti-Muslim protest, a militia armed with semi-automatic weapons at a place of worship isn’t an attack on religious freedom at all. Apparently, it’s an act of patriotism.
“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.”
But Shami didn’t meet that hate with hate. Instead, he made a quiet and courageous act of conciliation. He invited the protesters into the mosque to join his 800 members for evening prayers, and something truly extraordinary happened to those who accepted the offer.
One of the protesters, Jason Leger, a Phoenix resident wearing one of the profanity-laced shirts, accepted the invitation. He says what he experienced that night has left him a changed man.
“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 protester, Paul Griffin, had earlier in the day stated that he didn’t care if his t-shirt was offensive. But after prayers, he assured a small crowd of Muslims 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.”
Shami told the Washington Post:
“A lot of them, they’ve never met a Muslim, or they haven’t had interactions with Muslims,” he said. “A lot of them are filled with hate and rage. Maybe they went to websites that charged them with this hatred. So when you sit down and talk like rational people, without all these slogans, without being bigots, without bringing guns, they will find out that they’re talking to another human.”
It is important to state that Shami and the mosque have no duty or obligation to invite gun-carrying protsters into their mosque at any time. The thing to take away from this story should not be, “If only all Muslims were like Shami, we wouldn’t have this problem.” But instead that often, we are most susceptible to prejudice against that which appears alien to us. By sharing our respective beliefs, rituals, faiths and lifestyles – we may never agree, but we can accept and even respect our differences.