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Protesters decry Islam outside Phoenix mosque: 'They want to take over'

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/11/2015 Tom Dart in Phoenix

File photo: A mosque in Phoenix © Ross D. Franklin/AP File photo: A mosque in Phoenix Demonstrators squared off outside a Phoenix mosque amid a heavy police presence on Saturday, during the highest-profile of a series of anti-Islam rallies that were planned to be staged nationwide.

Related: US Muslim leaders brace for protests with potentially armed demonstrators

Some Muslim leaders had approached the weekend with caution, but many of the so-called Global Rally for Humanity events that had been promoted on social media appeared not to materialise or to be attended by no more than a handful of protesters.

In Maryland, Zainab Chaudry, outreach manager for the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations, said about 30 people of various faiths showed up at 8am at Dar-Al-Taqwa Mosque in Howard County – to support the mosque.

Chaudry said mosque leaders in Murfreesboro, Tennessee reported some protesters, though they were outnumbered by counter-protesters. Imad Enchassi, imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said no one had shown up by 4pm, the time the protest organizers had scheduled. A handful of protesters, he said, were outside the University of Central Oklahoma, where a conference about the life of the Prophet Mohammad and Islam was taking place.

The Phoenix protest, though, attracted more than 120 demonstrators – and more than 30 law enforcement officials.

It was held outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix – where two gunmen killed by police outside a “draw the prophet” contest near Dallas in May had spent time – and followed a far bigger rally earlier this year.

Anti-Islam protesters lined up along a street, faced by a smaller set of counter-protesters, with the sides separated by two sets of metal crowd control barriers. They frequently yelled at each other.

American flags were prominent among the anti-Islam crowd of approximately 80 people, about a third bearing arms ranging from revolvers to assault rifles. Several people on the other side of the street were also toting weapons. Open carry is legal in Arizona.

Greg Burleson, who said he was a militia member who usually spent his weekends at the border tracking cartel members, said the mosque was a breeding ground for terrorists.

“I want them the f*** out of my neighbourhood,” he said. “They can practice Islam in their own country. I don’t want it shoved down my throat in my own country.”

A man who gave his name only as Richard and carried a placard with the slogan “Unite against Islamic terrorists now” said the event was “a wonderful opportunity for people to get out and express themselves”.

He added: “We don’t want Islam to take over the country and that’s what they want to do. They want to take over the world.”

Joanne Scott Woods, a counter-protester and community activist, said the anti-Islam protesters “have freedom of speech but they are bigoted. Just bigoted. We can’t change that. I’m glad they’re not shooting us.”

Sumayyah Dawud said that in the current climate of Islamophobia, attitudes towards Muslims were increasingly polarised and “getting more hostile from some people, but other people are becoming more open-minded”.

She said the rally was “based on ignorance and fear”. As for the guns, Dawud said she was pro-second amendment but the protesters were “carrying guns with the intention of intimidation”.

“They say they’re standing for the second amendment but what they’re really trying to do is intimidate peaceful worshippers,” she said.

There was a flashpoint about 70 minutes into the rally, when two anti-Islam protesters crossed the barriers, leading to a brief moment of pushing and shoving that was swiftly quelled by the arrival of riot police.

Several demonstrators – one draped in the Confederate flag – were asked by police to leave. The event broke up after three hours, without further incident.

“We’re just exercising our first-amendment [free speech] rights. We’re all about peace and love,” said the organiser of the rally, former US marine Jon Ritzheimer, a pistol on his hip.

He produced sheets of paper from his pocket which he said were passages from the Koran proving that Islam promotes violence.

“We’re educating people,” he said. He gestured at the mosque. “Take away their 501c [tax-exempt status],” he said. “Let Donald Trump build something beautiful.”

The gates of the mosque were shut. There was no point trying to engage or reason with “bigots”, said Usama Shami, the president of the Islamic Community Center.

“What am I going to talk to them about?” he said. “There is no common ground.”

Shami said he was encouraged by the lower turnout compared with the May protest but worried about the longer-term consequences of a climate of intolerance and antagonism in a country filled with firearms.

“What these guys are doing is creating an atmosphere of hatred,” he said. “We live in a time where we witness mass shootings every day. There are people who are less stable mentally and it could push them over the edge.

“When you plant these seeds in the minds of people – that Muslims are going to hurt you at some point – you could have incidents.”

  • Additional reporting by Halima Kazem

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