Over the last week, local and national news stories, including a handful of my diaries here, have focused on the anti-Islam protest at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix. Our TV screens were filled with camouflaged militia goons with AK-15s hanging from their shoulders, while they shouted spittle-laced profanities at worshippers and hoisted inflammatory signs denigrating Islam. The hate and vitriol were a bit too much but thankfully, even with guns in abundance and nerves on edge, no violence occurred during the demonstration Friday. That's one piece of good news, but that wasn't all.
When the anti-Islam group planned the Muhammad cartoon contest at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix (chosen because the Garland, Texas shooters had attended its mosque), the announcement appeared on Facebook and initially only a few people RSVP'd. Then the story went national and within a couple days the total spiked to more than 800 Islamophobes. But the other thing the broader coverage did was alert the progressive community to the protest, and the 250 anti-Islam demonstrators who actually turned out Friday were met by as many or more counter protestors who, the media said, brought a "message of love."
That, in fact, was the real story Friday, not the hate. A multicultural city that is much more liberal than Arizona's national reputation, Phoenix celebrates its diversity and that message came through Friday. The mosque's President Usami Shami spoke to the city's penchant for finding strength in its many cultures when he said, "This story is about the community of Phoenix standing up against bigotry." Then today a unity rally was held at the same location:
"We ask that you bring a FLOWER as a symbol of love and care," reads the Facebook event page. "We are better together, and together we are strong." Organizers say they want to illustrate how their members respond when they are mistreated — with a message of love, not hate. With nearly two dozen sponsors, the gathering is an interfaith one. Christian and Jewish leaders from all over the Valley are expected to join the Muslim community at the mosque.But there was an even more poignant lesson learned Friday by several men who came to protest the mosque, attired in their "F*ck Islam" T-shirts. And then, as Blog for Arizona tells it, something happened.
Jason Leger, a Phoenix resident wearing one of the profanity-laced shirts, accepted an invitation to join the evening prayer inside the mosque, and said the experience changed him.Usami Shami, who has frequently condemned terrorism, ISIS and all forms of religious extremism, has made this point over and over: For many the only image of Islam they know is TV beheadings, Fox News's scary drumbeat to war or the fear-mongering on rightwing websites. Many know nothing about the religion, nor do they know a single Muslim. "So when you sit down and talk like rational people," he said, "without all these slogans, without being bigots, without bringing guns, they will find out that they’re talking to another human." Another protestor invited into the mosque on Friday discovered a slice of his own humanity:
"It was something I've never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along," Leger said. "They made me feel welcome, you know. I just think everybody’s points are getting misconstrued, saying things out of emotion, saying things they don’t believe."
Paul Griffin, who had earlier said he didn’t care if his t-shirt was offensive, assured a small crowd of Muslims at the end of the rally that he wouldn't wear it again.Shaking his hand and smiling. And so it begins.
"I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt," he told one man while shaking his hand and smiling. "I won't wear it again."