WASHINGTON – Pamela Geller and Usama Shami agree one thing: The Phoenix mosque where anti-Muslim protests occurred last week is not truly understood.
That’s about the only thing they agree on.
Geller, who describes herself as a free-speech advocate, organized a “draw the Prophet Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas, last month. She notes that the two men who were killed after opening fire at that event had worshipped at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, and that two other former members of that mosque are in prison on what she called “terrorism-related charges.”
“There is a problem at that mosque,” Geller said this week. “The protest occurred in order to demand an investigation of the mosque. It’s clearly a national security threat.”
But Shami, the president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, said the “problem” is that not enough people understand Islam and his mosque – something he said has been changing in the wave of support that followed the May 29 protests there.
“We’ve gotten close to a thousand emails of support from around the country, from around the world,” Shami said this week. “Our voicemail, which can only record for a certain amount of time, has been full for the past week. We’re getting written mails too, with checks in them.”
The calls and letters have come in the wake of a rally organized at the Phoenix mosque last week by Valley resident Jon Ritzheimer, a veteran who said on social media that he organized the protest in response to the shootings at Geller’s event in Garland.
It was at the event in Garland that Elton Ibrahim Simpson and Nadir Soofi opened fire, according to news reports. They wounded a security guard, but police shot and killed Simpson and Soofi before they could do any further harm.
Simpson and Soofi were Muslims – who consider images of the Prophet Muhammad blasphemous and offensive. The two men had also been members of the Phoenix mosque.
The Garland shooting sparked Ritzheimer’s rally, which drew an estimated 250 supporters – many armed – and about the same number of counterprotesters, according to news reports from the event.
Ritzheimer did not respond to a request for comment sent to his Facebook account, where he said he was trying to get his life back on track after the media scrutiny that resulted from the protest last week.
But Geller continues to speak out in support of the protest. She pointed to the fact that former members of the mosque, Hassan Abu-Jihaad and Derrick Shareef, are in federal prison.
“Elton Simpson, who went to the mosque, said he would never waver from the teachings at the mosque. They have jihadist interests, that’s what are they teaching,” she charged.
Shami called that nonsense. He said anyone who wants to know what is being taught in the mosque can go to its website, where all the lectures and sermons are posted after being recorded in the mosque.
“If the mosque was teaching violence, then the FBI would have picked up on it because they had an informant in our mosque from 2005 to 2010 due to Ibrahim Simpson,” Shami said. “There are over 1,500 hours of taped conversations with him.”
That scrutiny is symptomatic of what other Muslim organizations see as a prejudice against Islam.
“There’s a double standard for Christians, Jews, Hindus, non-Muslims in general,” said Imraan Siddiqi, Arizona director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “If this protest happened outside a church or synagogue it would be global news, everyone would be sympathizing with them.
“There’s a selective acceptance of facts. The only acceptable form of bigotry is anti-Muslim sentiments,” Siddiqi said.
But Geller said she is the one who is a victim of prejudice.
“I have no problem with peaceful Muslims. Mainstream Muslims who support free speech would be standing next to us. These days anyone against jihad, or sharia (Islamic law), is labeled an Islamophobe,” she said.
Geller, the president of “Stop Islamization of America,” said that silence in the face of threats “will only embolden. If we surrender on this point, freedom of speech is a relic of history.”
“I want to make this world safer for everybody, including Muslims,” Geller said.
At the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, meanwhile, the mosque has continued its operations as normal, with daily sermons and prayer sessions since the Ritzheimer protest last week. Shami said the attention that followed that protest has shown that Muslims in Phoenix are law-abiding, peaceful citizens, like most Americans.
Three days after the protest, an interfaith “Love is Stronger than Hate” rally was held outside the mosque, where members of many different faiths were present to show their solidarity with Valley Muslims, according to news reports. Shami said there was an especially large congregation at Monday evening’s prayer, after the interfaith rally.
“The people of Phoenix and the U.S. came to reject bigotry. That message is going to be rejected,” Shami said. “Any time a person is going to divide people along ethnic lines, religion, faith, etc., they will fail in their effort.”