All eyes rested on the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, where protesters spoke against the Muslim religion, as well as counter-protesters, gathered Friday to exercise their freedom of speech and freedom of religion rights.
The Freedom of Speech Rally: Round II that pitted anti- and pro-Muslim supporters against one another ended without any violent incidents or arrests, although both protesters and counter-protesters got the opportunity to openly speak on their beliefs.
Hundreds on both sides gathered to speak about their opinions — anti-Muslim protesters burned the Quran and flashed their weapons while pro-Muslim supporters chanted in support of all religions, including Islam.
Pro-Muslim supporter Talal Yousufza engaged in a heated argument with one of the protesters, before quickly turning the conversation into a productive one about religion.
“We need to talk in the right way, you talk to people,” he said. “You gotta do that based off your morals and the practice of your religion. If you’re a true follower of Prophet Muhammad, he teaches you self-control.”
In anticipation of the event, Phoenix police closed down several blocks surrounding the mosque and several businesses in the area closed their doors early. The rally began with protesters on both sides going head-to-head.
Police quickly set up barricades and formed a dividing line between the two groups, but verbal altercations still occurred.
The protest was organized by Jon Ritzheimer, who made a brief appearance at the mosque. Originally, there was a “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest similar to the one in Garland, Texas, scheduled during the protest that never took place.
Ritzheimer appeared on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” Thursday night, saying his goal was to expose the Islamic religion.
"True Islam is terrorism," he told Cooper. "The ones that are out committing these atrocities and stuff, they're following the (Quran) as it's written."
Nigel Yousuf, another pro-Muslim supporter, said the protesters were acting in a way that would provoke the counter-protesters, many of them donning guns and weapons to “utilize there (sic) Second Amendment right at this event just in case our First Amendment comes under the much anticipated attack,” according to the Facebook page.
“This is a house of God, like every church, every synagogue, every temple is,” he said. “People have a right in this country to preach whatever they want to preach. They want to come here with weapons — every single person on that side has M-16s and M-4s and .9 millimeters and all sorts of guns. Nobody here has a single weapon.
The Islamic Community Center of Phoenix was frequented by Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, the two suspects in the May 4 shooting at a Texas cartoon contest.
Earlier this week, the ICCP asked the FBI to investigate threatening letters that were directed toward religious leaders and sent to the mosque. The letters mentioned several death threats, according to the press release.
Johnny Martin, who attended the event with several members of the advocacy group Sun Devils Are Better Together, said he attended the counter-protest to show solidarity with the Phoenix mosque and the Muslim community in the Valley.
Martin said he witnessed hateful speech and language from both sides, which has made it hard to take a definitive stand.
“On both sides, you’re seeing both sides exercise their freedom of speech,” he said. “On the event page, they were encouraging people to exercise their First and Second Amendments, by using free speech and baring arms. And they’re using their First and Second Amendment rights to infringe on other people’s First, to practice their religion. They’re trying to intimidate and bully people for being different than them.”
While members of the protest and counter-protest were divided into two separate groups, in a similar fashion to good vs. evil, Martin said, the members could not be easily associated in that manner.
“When there’s so much hateful messaging on the other side, and then you look at the messages over here and they’re all about peace and co-exist, tolerance and respect, it does kind of delineate things in a black-and-white, good-and-evil way,” he said. “But it really isn’t quite that simple because I’ve heard people on this side respond to them by saying negative things about Christianity, which is definitely concerning in a lot of ways.”
The protest, despite the instances of hate speech and the presence of weapons, remained peaceful throughout the night. Phoenix police reported making no arrests.
Reach the reporter at Jlsuerth@asu.edu or follow @SuerthJessica on Twitter.