By Khaled A Beydoun
June 02, 2015
In the United States, mosques have become common gathering sites for two disparate groups – Muslim worshippers, and anti-Muslim hate-mongers.
On May 29, the two converged in Phoenix, Arizona, in front of the Islamic Community Centre of Phoenix. In a nation where 58 percent of the population has never met a Muslim – ‘Arizonan Islamophobia’ is an especially frightening breed.
An estimated 500 anti-Muslim protesters descended in front of the Islamic Community Centre, some armed with guns and clad in army fatigues. The rally promised to ‘take back America’.
The firearms the demonstrators openly brandished, combined with the signs and slurs they fired in the direction of the Muslim American counter-protesters, made that promise seem far more like a threat.
The police line between the two factions, notwithstanding the threat posed by the anti-Muslim rally, did not shatter. They were on-site to preserve the free speech rights of the anti-Muslim action, and ‘protect both parties’.
Seemingly everybody in front of the mosque carried a gun, except the Muslims. However, despite this fact, it is the unarmed Muslim bodies that are largely regarded as ‘threats’ and ‘terrorists’.
While nativist, white factions – armed to the teeth and explicitly vowing violent action – are continuously extended the protections denied to non-white protesters. The idea that free speech is protected equally across racial lines is a fiction.
The racial identity of the protesters are as, and sometimes more, important than the content of the speech. This was vividly evidenced on the violent crackdown on the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept through the US, and on Friday, police protection of the anti-Islam protesters in Phoenix.
Friday’s protest in Arizona was as much a display of white privilege as it was an anti-Islam protest. In fact, the demonstration was spearheaded by a biker gang. Indeed, if black, Latino or Muslim American protesters acted the same, police would be on-site to suppress, not protect.
The whiteness brandished by the anti-Muslim protesters – within a state where racism and xenophobia infamously thrive – was the most potent part of their protest.
It was a type of visual speech that did not have to be uttered, but demanded the highest grade of police protection.
Whiteness, time and again, spurs immediate imagery of peace, patriotism and Americanness – regardless of how menacing and violent it actually is – which typically results with the state protecting it far more than it punishes it.
Juxtaposed, Phoenix and Ferguson highlight that the content of speech is not as salient as the colour of the speaker. Demonstrations of whiteness, and the privileges and power they historically and currently command, were as core to the anti-Muslim protests as their hateful messages.
This factor, combined with the fact that the target of the hate speech was Muslims and Islam, augments the First Amendment rights of the anti-Muslim protesters.
The enforcement of the First Amendment can be funny and fickle. The US Constitution’s foremost law presumptively protects the speech of actors like the anti-Muslim protesters in Phoenix.
But it also safeguards the free exercise of religion rights of their targets – Muslim Americans. In the US, neither racism nor Islamophobia are per se illegal. Yet, the long-term effects of the anti-Muslim protests are far more concerning than the immediate threat they posed to Muslims on Friday.
While carrying weapons, organised, and seemingly ready to pounce on Muslim American counter-protesters, the anti-Muslim action aimed to cultivate and spread armed Islamophobic actions throughout the state.
Excerpted from: ‘A demonstration of white privilege’.