SHAFAQNA – A series of anti-Islam protests planned in more than two dozen cities, including Phoenix, this weekend has prompted community leaders to urge Muslims to take safety precautions in case the demonstrations turn violent.
It remains unclear how much participation the protests will draw. They are being organized on Facebook under the name “Global Rally for Humanity” and call on supporters to demonstrate outside local mosques on Friday and Saturday.
Still, the protests have raised alarm among community leaders and advocacy groups. While anti-Islam protesters have targeted mosques in the past, such as the demonstration in May that drew several hundred protesters, some armed, to the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, this is the first time there has been a coordinated effort to target multiple mosques in multiple cities, advocates say.
“We’ve never had this many events targeting mosques in this kind of national way,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a conference call with reporters. “This is widespread in a way that these things have not been before.”
The demonstrations underscore a growing anti-Islam movement in the U.S., which has been exacerbated by rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail and the refugee crisis in Europe, she said.
This is “happening in a larger context in which presidential candidates are willing to say just absolutely outrageous statements like a Muslim can’t be president of the United States or who condone statements from their supporters, for example Obama is a Muslim,” Beirich said.
During a television interview, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Republican candidate for president, said he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”
Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, declined to correct a man during a town hall in New Hampshire who said, “We got a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one.”
Thousands of refugees, most of them Muslims, fleeing civil war in Syria have been pouring into Europe, creating the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The crisis “is becoming an excuse for racist organizations, some anti-government groups and other extremists to take their anti-Islamic rhetoric to an even higher level,” Beirich said.
The protests planned for this weekend are particularly concerning because some of the protesters may be armed, she said. “This has become is a very dangerous situation,” Beirich said.
The Phoenix Police Department is monitoring social media to determine how to respond, said Sgt. Trent Crump, a spokesman for the department.
So far there has been little interest in the protest planned for Phoenix, he said.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Facebook page for an anti-Islam demonstration planned outside the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix said that 102 people indicated they planned to attend. Another 55 indicated “maybe.” More than 1,500 people had been invited, according to the Facebook page.
The page invites “patriots, veterans, bikers, militia, reservists, active-duty Infidels and all Americans who still love liberty and cling to the constitution to meet at the Islamic Center of Phoenix at 9 a.m. Saturday.” It instructs them to “bring your flags!! Ole Glory, Revolutionary War-Era Stars and Stripes, Confederate Battle Flags, 2nd Amendment Flags, U.S. Armed Forces…Tea Party.”
In May, several hundred protesters demonstrated outside the Phoenix mosque during Friday prayers. They were met by several hundred counter-protesters. Organizers said the protest was in response to two Phoenix residents who drove to Texas and opened fire during an anti-Islam event that featured a draw-Prophet-Mohammed cartoon contest. The two men were killed by police. They had attended the Phoenix mosque in the past.
The timing of Saturday’s protests has baffled community leaders. It may be intended to intimidate families and children attending religion classes held on Saturday mornings at some mosques, said Kalia Abiade, advocacy director at Center for New Community, an advocacy group based in Chicago.
She said 35 anti-Islam events in cities across the country had been planned, but six have since been cancelled. The five cities that had received the highest number of responses from people indicating they planned to attend demonstrations were Phoenix; Dearborn, Mich.; Arlington, Texas; and two cities in Florida, Ocala and Spring Hill.
Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, said typically there are no activities at the center on Saturday mornings.
As a result, “usually there is no one here at that time,” he said.
During prayer services on Friday, community leaders plan to make an announcement letting members of the community know a demonstration is planned and they should remain vigilant, Shami said.
He said community leaders will recommend that members stay away from the center, but if they decide to come, they should avoid engaging with protesters out of concern they might try to provoke violence.
“When you have angry people with guns you always worry that a loose cannon will do harm,” he said.
Rabiah Ahmed, media and communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, D.C., said Muslim Americans can’t combat the growing anti-Islam movement alone.
“It really does require other minorities, other faith based groups, other government leaders to step up and say this is wrong, this is unacceptable and we won’t tolerate this,” she said.