"We have the right to assemble, the right to worship, and he's not going to take that right away from us"
Leaders at an Islamic community center in Phoenix say they’re standing tall in the face of armed protesters who are planning a provocative “free speech rally” in front of the mosque Friday night.
Former Marine Jon Ritzheimer, who planned the rally, is urging attendees to “utilize their Second Amendment right”—the right to bear arms—as they protest during evening prayers at the mosque. He is also organizing a Muhammad Cartoon Contest as part of the protest, which is considered blasphemous by many Muslims.
“I know that he is hoping for confrontation,” Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, said of Ritzheimer. “The whole point of bringing guns—these are not peace tools, these are meant to intimidate people.”
“The whole issue with cartoon drawing is to inflame emotions and hoping that someone will cross the line,” Shami added. “We’re not going to be falling into that trap, we understand what he’s trying to do.”
Ritzheimer said the rally is a “response” to the May 3 shooting outside a Texas “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,” in which both gunmen were killed by police. ISIS claimed responsibility for the shooting, but it’s unclear whether they actually helped plan the attack.
“Islam has an ugly track record,” Ritzheimer, who also organized a May 17 rally in front of the same Islamic center, told TIME in an email. “Our founding fathers gave us the second amendment to protect ourselves from tyranny. I would hate for an attack to happen at this event and people be ill prepared and un able to protect themselves.” Multiple photos on Ritzheimer’s Facebook page depict him wearing a T-shirt that says “F-ck Islam.”
Despite the rally, evening prayers at the Islamic Community Center are scheduled to go ahead as planned.
“We’re not changing anything,” Shami said. “If they want to express their opinion and draw cartoons, that’s up to them. I don’t like them, but they have the right to do that.”
Ritzheimer said he hopes to hold additional events across the country.
“I want Freedom of Speech Rallies to pop up in every state,” he said. “I want the truth about Islam exposed because people are ignorant to the religion if they haven’t read the Quran. I want to know that my children won’t have to be threatened with murder for drawing a cartoon.” Ritzheimer is not affiliated with Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, who organized the Texas event where the shooting occurred.
Shami said the mosque would have extra security Friday night, but he and his congregation are unbowed by the protest. “We’re not going to be intimidated, we’re citizens of this country like he is, we have rights like he does,” Shami added. “We have the right to assemble, the right to worship, and he’s not going to take that right away from us.”