By Haroon Mohgul
May 29, 2015
When you leave your house of worship, you don't usually expect to be greeted by hundreds of bikers, possibly armed, intent on insulting your religion with expletives emblazoned on their T-shirts and a drawing contest intended to mock your prophet.
Yet judging by the last time I checked a certain Facebook page, that is exactly the kind of outright racism and bigotry that some Arizonan Muslims can expect to be treated to this evening.
Around 6 p.m. local time, to coincide with evening prayers outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, Arizona, a group of bikers is expected to hold a "Draw Muhammad" contest to "celebrate" the First Amendment in the parking lot. Although they're calling for a peaceful rally, the call has gone out for them to bring weapons to defend themselves.
The rally is being organized by Jon Ritzheimer and Flash Nelson, who appear to believe that arms are necessary following the attack on another contest earlier this month, in Garland, Texas. Thankfully, no one was killed except the perpetrators, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, who worshiped at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix. Ritzheimer and Nelson seem to think, though, that because these men worshiped at a mosque, that they somehow represent Islamic values.
Sadly, they aren't alone. Whenever I write about Islam, I am invariably asked by people: "Why don't Muslims condemn terrorism?" For a long time, I wondered why they didn't hear our condemnations. Then it occurred to me that this question keeps popping up because some media outlets actually repeat the falsehood that Muslims don't condemn terrorism.
But the fact is that neither Simpson nor Soofi had any support within their local Muslim community, or indeed any American Muslim community. They reportedly expressed their radical views on social media, not at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix -- or any other mosque -- no doubt because they knew that doing so would lead to them being reported to the authorities.
It might be hard for some people to understand, but American Muslims are, yes, American, and they genuinely identify themselves that way.
Of course, there are very real and very worrying cases of American Muslims who turn to violence. But even a casual look at the numbers demonstrates how small these numbers are. For example, the Dallas metropolitan area is home to some 150,000 Muslims. Yet none of the numerous mosques, scholars and imams in the area protested the Garland event, despite it having been well-publicized, and despite the fact that it took place on the outskirts of the city. Instead, Dallas-area Muslims elected to ignore the event, as indeed nearly every American Muslim organization did.
Yet despite this clear preference for rejecting confrontation, even refusing to peacefully protest, some commentators still lump Soofi and Simpson in with all other Muslims.
As a result of these attitudes, there are times when we American Muslims feel besieged. (Wondering if you'll have to confront a group of angry armed men when you leave your house of worship can do that). But we balance these unfortunate instances of bigotry with our everyday experiences in America and our daily interactions with our fellow Americans.
Unfortunately, many Muslims around the world do not get to experience these positive day-to-day interactions, and as a result, they might make up their minds based on what they see on the TV or social media. And it is these kinds of images that extremists will seek to exploit.
I don't like it when Islamophobes use extremists to accuse and indict all of Islam, so I certainly don't like it when Islamic extremists do that to America. Yet there is a genuine danger that Muslims overseas might judge our country based on the actions of people who are loud, angry and dangerous, but ultimately marginal.
And some of these characters really should remain on the margins. On Thursday night, CNN's Anderson Cooper interviewed Ritzheimer. But instead of describing it as an interview, I would instead call it a master class in how to coax a guest into revealing their true colors -- Cooper led Ritzheimer, who was clearly in over his head, to admit he believes American troops are in fact supporting terrorism. (And encouragingly, it hasn't just been CNN calling out bigotry -- Geraldo Rivera had a fantastic monologue on FOX News that laid out the reality of anti-Muslim bias on television.)
Just like their fellow American Muslims, prominent, reasonable and respected American leaders, in the government and in the media, regularly choose to stress a very simple point: We have freedoms because we use them responsibly. Those who abuse our freedoms most threaten them.
I pray tonight's event, as distasteful as it is, goes off without incident. They have every right to protest. Just as we have every reason to know better.