On Friday, May 29, 2015, a group of bikers in Arizona plan to host an anti-Muslim demonstration outside of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix. Dubbed as “Freedom of Speech Rally Round 2,” a reference to American blogger Pamela Geller’s deadly “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas earlier this month, the event, organized on Facebook, is described as a “response to the recent attack in Texas where 2 armed terrorist, [sic] with ties to ISIS, attempted Jihad.”
Prior to gathering outside of the mosque, the motorcyclists say they’ll meet in a nearby Denny’s parking lot, where they’ll have a “Muhammad cartoon contest.” They plan to take the images of Islam’s prophet to the Islamic Community Center at 6:15 that evening — a time when the Muslim community is expected to gather inside.
The rally’s organizer, Jon Ritzheimer, has called on the group to “to utilize there [sic] second amendment right at this event just in case our first amendment comes under the much anticipated attack.” He warns on the event’s Facebook page that the mosque is “a known place that the 2 terrorist [sic] frequented.” The would-be ambushers of Pamela Geller’s event in Garland are said to have worshiped there.
As of Wednesday morning, 128 people had signed up to attend the Phoenix rally.
There are a few important points about this event that are worth noting, briefly.
First, this rally shows how seemingly fringe figures like Pamela Geller have (even unintentionally) inspired copycat demonstrations across the country. Geller and company don’t tote weapons, but biker gangs who sympathize with her views often do. Ahead of a Muslim event in Garland, Texas back in January, some motorcyclists showed up with long guns. In 2011, fundamentalist Christian pastor Terry Jones planned a protest outside of a Dearborn mosque, indicating that he and his supporters would be armed. Ultimately, authorities prevented the gathering. Though the bikers at these events did not fire their weapons, the possibility of violence increases when armed demonstrators swarm a group of people they dislike. For Ritzheimer and his fellow bikers, Islam is a religion that inspires violence among its followers. Muslims are a dangerous threat. At this latest protest in Phoenix, Geller’s supporters are taking what — in their minds — is the logical next step: possibly resorting to violence.
Next, this event is yet another reminder of the degree to which “free speech” demonstrations are often veneers for deep-seated animus. The point that the Phoenix bikers are making with this event is less about free speech than it is about expressing their hatred of Islam directly to Muslims. This is evidenced by the obscene comments on the group’s page, the vulgar t-shirts that the group will sell (and wear) ahead of their gathering, and the fact that the organizers have chosen to intentionally antagonize Muslims at their mosque by arriving en masse, insulting their religion to their faces, intimidating them with their weapons, and expecting that they quietly embrace all of this in the name of the First Amendment.
Lastly, it highlights the degree to which Islamophobia runs rampant on the Internet, and how social media has become a breeding ground for groups like this who, in addition to fomenting their views online, use the virtual space to plan and organize actual events. This is central to the effectiveness of groups like Geller’s, who time and again have nurtured online bases and issued calls to action. In 2010, the hue and cry in the streets of Manhattan over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” was Geller’s work, and in the past five years dozens of bloggers and web-goers have translated armchair enthusiasm about issues related to Islam into on-the-ground activism against Muslim groups.
The FBI is currently investigating threatening letters that were sent to the mosque, and an entourage of armed people gathered outside of it on Friday evening will only make matters worse.